Friday 21 September 2018

Alan O'Neill: UCD spin-out focused on growth with groundbreaking microscope

A researcher said microwave weapons might be to blame. Photo: Stock Image
A researcher said microwave weapons might be to blame. Photo: Stock Image

Alan O'Neill

Scientists can slow a cancer down but nobody can yet identify the underlying causes. Research companies around the world spend millions analysing the internal workings of human cells to identify the causes of cancer, Huntingdon's Alzheimer's, etc. X-ray microscopes play a big part in that process.

For an X-ray microscope to be effective, it needs an appropriate light source. You'll remember a microscope in the school lab that used natural light illumination to enable you to examine an insect. However, when X-raying human cells, the illumination source required up to now is only available from a powerful light source the size of a football field. This has greatly limited the use of these x-ray microscopes.

Sirius XT is a UCD spin-out off company that has miniaturised this machine to one that will fit on a kitchen table. This is revolutionary technology in this field, not to mention the lower capital cost for the equipment.

Doctors Fergal O'Reilly, Paul Sheridan and Kenneth Fahy were working on a different project entirely (semi-conductor lithography) that didn't work out as planned. They then explored other uses for their technology and discovered this opportunity.

Having secured initial support from Enterprise Ireland, they are now a pre-revenue start-up company with great prospects.

Tony McEnroe is the new managing director, with responsibility for building the business. "I have started and built a number of startup companies over the years and I've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't," he said.

Challenges for startups

Taking a project from ideation to having a solid revenue stream is a holy grail for many inventors. Whether your idea is a physical product like this one or a less tangible concept, the challenges are the same. They always include funding and building a commercial plan.

There is also a risk of being so excited and blinded by an idea that the inventor throws good money after bad in the hope of making it big some day.

Now, I'm a big fan of being ambitious and the power of positive thinking. But I'm also a big fan of being grounded in reality and being well-planned. It's about balance.

Tips for startups

Take comfort from knowing that there are many who have tread this path before you. The following steps here are not a guaranteed magic bullet. But they will guide you on a path of discovering if your idea has commercial merit and, if so, how to bring it to market.

1 Do some discovery.

"You know the great things that your product or service can do. But you need to sense check your idea with potential customers," said Tony. You may have developed a solution to a problem that you perceive to exist. But do others agree with you? What features would they like to see in your product? Would those same customers be willing to pay for it? And, if so, how much? What is the competitive landscape like?

2 Develop a business plan.

With your research complete, develop a business plan. It's normally first developed as an investor PowerPoint deck and does not have to be a long Word document. I like to think of it as a compelling story that will interest investors.

This will initially help you test the commercials and to see if there is a business in this at all. You also need to consider if your idea is scalable beyond the first couple of years. You may need to bring in external funding to finance the business in the early years. No financier will lend you money without a business plan.

There are lots of templates available. (Mail me at alan.oneill@kara.ie for a sample).

Your business plan should open with a concise executive summary.

Then show the problem and the solution that your product or service delivers.

Outline the size of the potential market, main competitors, target customers, and show how the business will be sustainable.

Profile the team, outlining roles and responsibilities. Finally, include financial statements that show investment required, payback, projected sales and costs and a cash-flow projection.

3 Seek investment, if required.

It may seem an impossible task, but there are several avenues available to you. Enterprise Ireland are just one great resource for seed capital, even at the pre-revenue stage. There are a number of advisers that will help you to find the right investment partner at the varying stages of your evolution.

4 Build a strong team.

The skills required to invent and incubate a new product or service are very different to those required to build a business. It's important to recognise that and be honest about your strengths and limitations. Dealing with investors, customers and negotiating commercial deals are different to the technical skills required to build an X-ray. The founders of Sirius XT brought great maturity to that and hired Tony.

5 Create a solid plan.

The business case described above is not a plan. You'll need a project plan that starts with a detailed strategy document and action plans that describe who will do what exactly, by when and to what metric.

Summary

History is full of stories where an initial invention became something else entirely when it was commercialised. Play-Doh, for example, was intended to be wallpaper cleaner! The famous stories of how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs scaled their businesses are also legendary. Your idea doesn't have to change the world, but it might add value to a world that is more local to you. Having a great idea and bringing it to a scalable market is incredibly exciting. Use these guidelines to give it your best shot.

Alan O'Neill, The Change Agent www.alanoneill.biz. Contact Alan if you'd like support with your business. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to sundaybusiness@independent.ie

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