Business Personal Finance

Tuesday 20 February 2018

You too can become an investor in exciting new Irish innovation

Investing doesn’t have to be about risk or even serious amounts of money
Investing doesn’t have to be about risk or even serious amounts of money

Niamh Bushnell

In October 2016, I sat down with my son Seamus to check out a crowdfunding campaign by a company called Brixo. Crowdfunding platforms are a way for innovative young companies to drum up the early-stage funding they need to build a prototype, or move from prototype to a commercially viable product.

The vast majority of the time, the companies who use crowdfunding platforms have no previous funding, revenue or track record, and their "product" can often feel as conceptual as a pipe dream.

But none of that was going to deter Seamus and I. The Brixo video showed how their motion, sound and light blocks could literally turn Lego on, and that was exactly what we were looking for.

A credit card and 16 digits later we were in as backers of the project and members of the Brixo community. It was exciting to be investing in a product yet to be built, even if that meant it would take months to arrive on our doorstep in Dublin. We were cool with that then, and we still are.

That's right. It's now 12 months later and our Brixo blocks remain as elusive as ever. About six months ago, right around the time of Seamus' birthday, I emailed the company.

When can we expect our blocks? I asked. Their support people responded immediately, but the answer would have been just as easy to find in the regular email updates they sent to all their backers.

Then it dawned on me that Seamus and I were missing out on the opportunity to follow along on the adventures of Brixo, this young company which was learning how to develop something new through trial and error, and sharing that journey with us every step of the way.

From then on, when the Brixo updates arrived in my inbox we sat down and read them together.

An update in April explained that an issue with the sound sensor obliged them to remanufacture more that 2,000 circuits.

In July, they wrote about a challenge with the battery case lid and confirmed that a redesign was under way.

Then in August a category 10 typhoon called Hato hobbled Brixo's shipping schedule out of Asia. Of course, timing and luck have as much to do with the progress of young companies as do factors that are actually within their control on a daily basis.

Brixo is the first crowdfunding campaign I've backed but I have been an angel investor in tech companies in the US before and being close to these companies' challenges, their optimism and their work ethic has taught me a lot about business and helped me in my own work ever since.

I want to start investing now in Irish innovation and to take every opportunity I can to encourage others to do the same.

Backing young companies sounds expensive and risky but it doesn't have to be either. Today with no more than €50 you can start lending to fledgling Irish businesses through a peer-to-peer platform like Linked Finance. The same €50 could back numerous new ideas on a crowdfunding platform like Fund It.

And then there's Initial Coin Offerings or ICOs; a brand-new form of investment, best suited to people with a greater appetite for risk, whether or not they're high rollers. More and more innovative young companies in Ireland secure some portion of their funding through these newer types of channels and the rest of us can help fuel Ireland's innovation by plugging into them too.

A friend of mine is the poster child for Linked Finance's peer-to-peer lending service. He started lending through the platform in 2014, currently has 199 loans out to companies and an average interest yield of between 10 and 15pc.

He's lending small amounts of money to a whole range of different companies across Ireland, from farms, to food, to energy to software companies. What's the motivation behind your lending? I asked him. "I get solid returns and I'm excited to see people developing something new," he answered.

Today there are 17,000 people lending a total of over €35m through Linked Finance alone but there's €99bn more sitting in Irish deposit accounts, according to the Central Bank's July 2017 figures.

If people funnelled even 1pc of their deposit savings into new funding sources for young Irish companies it would supercharge Ireland's innovation overnight.

And once you invest in something, you're more likely to track it, feed back to it and buy it. That's the cake part of this icing on the cake story.

I asked Rhona Togher from startup Restored Hearing about her company's recent crowdfunding campaign and she told me about the passion that drove people to invest in it.

"It wasn't about getting the company on the cover of Forbes but about helping us to go a little faster, a little further," she explained.

Passion, community and great company stories drive a lot of the investing through peer-to-peer platforms too.

We all know entrepreneurs, creators and dreamers we'd like to support in some way and a small investment through a crowdfunding or lending platform can do a lot to propel these innovators forward.

There's never been a more exciting or easier way to support Irish innovation and continue building our reputation as an innovation nation.

Niamh Bushnell is the founder and ceo of TechIreland, a not-for-profit established in Dublin in January 2017

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