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How to: spin a company out of a third-level institute

The ideas might be there, but the product isn’t always.

IT’S SOMETHING WE often hear about – taking an idea that was forged in academia, commercialising it, and getting rich.

However, the challenges and pitfalls of the process are considerable, says Cathal McGloin, chief executive of Feedhenry, a company which has its roots in Waterford IT.

Feedhenry is designed to help companies that have multiple apps or mobile websites keep changes consistent across hundreds of digital properties.

Clients include Aer Lingus, PwC and other well known names in Ireland and the UK.

So how has he managed to take an idea from the academic bubble and make a business out of it? And what are the challenges he’s had to overcome?

Changing the mindset

One of the big changes he had to put through was an attitude adjustment. Shortly after spinning the company out of WIT, he realised that the staff weren’t ready for the aggressive and competitive nature of the business world.

“If you’re taking the people as well from a research institute, if they haven’t worked in the industry before there can sometimes be a rude awakening with regards to the pace in industry versus academia.”

We had to instil in them that you’re constantly competing with someone who’s going to take away your lunch. If you’re not paranoid and moving at the speed of innovation you get lost.

He says that entrepreneurs and investors that expect to find finished products waiting for them in the nation’s universities are misguided.

At best, what you have is a starting point or a jump off.

“What you often find is that the research has been in a specific area, but has no commercial outlets…people have been solving problems that have no commercial outlet, so you have to find a way of taking that and finding commercial outlets.”

On top of this, research that could have started three years ago on a topic that was new, interesting and sexy then may have stagnated in the interim.

“The research in colleges might have started three years ago, but the whole thing might have moved on because the innovation cycle moves so quickly.”

Most importantly, McGloin argues, is moulding the service into something that the market will want.

“It would be naive to think you could go into college, pick up a piece of tech and have a product…go and find the market segment, go and make it fit, tweak the product so it fixes a real world problem.”

McGloin’s formula certainly seems to be working, with revenues at Feedhenry doubling and tripling every year, and a large expansion in the US underway. The company now employees 65 people, and is targeting Germany and Scandinavia as well as America.

The most important piece of advice he has to offer?

Look for difficult problems to solve. If it’s easy, everyone would have done it.

Read: Show me the money – the reality of investment in Irish tech>

Read: Open for business – new company start-ups beat pre-recession levels>

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