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Saturday 3 June 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# Irish Abroad
Why these young Irish entrepreneurs chose to launch their startups in London
And the advantages of being part of a global network built on a shared heritage.

FROM INDUSTRY-CHANGING SUCCESSES like Ryanair to today’s crop of cutting-edge startups, there is little doubt that Ireland punches above its weight in the world of business.

But there are also downsides for ambitious young company founders to setting up in this country, particularly with the lure of the financial powerhouse that is London so close at hand.

This week, spoke with two young Irish entrepreneurs who chose to launch across the sea about starting a business in the UK capital - and how being able to tap into the diaspora still has helped them in their careers as startup founders.

Damien Kennedy, 30, co-founder Wheyhey

Kennedy and his business partner, Dublin native Greg Duggan, would appear at first glance to be a pair of unlikely entrepreneurs – two physiology graduates with backgrounds in basketball coaching and modelling respectively.

Photographs for Team Spirit- website use only  12/6/14 Alicia Field Greg Duggan, left, and Damien Kennedy of WheyHey Alicia Field

But three years after the duo first began experimenting with high-protein ice cream blends using a machine bought on eEbay, sales of their WheyHey products are expected to hit £5 million (€7 million) over the coming year.

“We launched it without realising what was involved in taking a consumer product to market, quickly,” Kennedy said.

We just got so pissed off with big food companies putting rubbish in their food and saying it was healthy.”

Their ice cream, which gets its name from the whey used as a key ingredient, has been one of a raft of food and supplement products enjoying soaring popularity as part of the global protein-is-good movement.

The pair are forecasting sales will quadruple this year with expansion of their exports to the Middle East and scheduled launches in several new European markets, as well as in Australia in time for the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Neither of us had any business experience, as such, the majority of it has just been common sense and being driven and ambitious. We were told by most of the big retailers early on that this won’t sell – we have just persevered.”

Part London, part Cork

While the ice cream is manufactured by Silver Pail Dairy in Kennedy’s native County Cork, the business has its roots firmly planted in London, where the 30-year-old has lived for the better part of a decade.

“It is an incredible city in terms of networking and reaching into European markets,” he said.

Kennedy said the benefit of being based in the UK capital rather than a city like Dublin came from the immediate access to a huge customer base, which meant the maximum return for any money spent on marketing or publicity.

If you wanted to launch a healthy product, the key market is London … you have 10 million people here who are generally trendsetters.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 17.18.05 Instagram / WheyHey Instagram / WheyHey / WheyHey

However Kennedy said having Irish roots had been an advantage – even when doing business outside the country.

A few years ago he was invited to pitch at a global conference run by the Irish International Business Network (IIBN), a not-for-profit group set up to connect Irish entrepreneurs across the world, and through that he has built up a formidable support network.

“We have been able to speak with high-level corporate people, who have been there and done it before … it’s literally one phone call if we need to get advice from someone immediately.”

Those who have ‘made it’ always seem to be happy to help out, to send the elevator back down and help the next generation of entrepreneurs reach the top.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 17.17.50 Instagram / WheyHey Instagram / WheyHey / WheyHey

Alex Grant, 32, founder Touriocity

Grant, originally from County Louth, began his business career working in finance after graduating from TCD.

He went on to complete an MBA in New York and Rome, where he first started working for a tech startup – and by accident found his way into the travel industry.

To try to pay off my student loans I started tour-guiding on the weekend and that led me to start a tour-guiding company in Rome, where we got to number one on Trip Advisor within a few years,” he said.

ALEX GRANT Federico Ercoli Touriocity's Alex Grant Federico Ercoli

While running the business, Grant realised the huge number of people who preferred private tours to the cattle-herding exercises favoured by big tour companies.

But there were few options for booking those bespoke tours online and in 2013 he set up his company, Touriocity, to provide a solution to that problem.

Last year the London-headquartered startup launched in Rome as a test market and it is now expanding into 15 cities. The company recently raised €500,000 from angel investors, which included backing from the founders of Irish car booking site CarTrawler.

“We are still a very young company so just because we’ve got this investment doesn’t mean we are going to be successful,” Grant said. “We are still fighting tooth and nail to make it work.”

‘The whole spectrum’

While he hoped to return to live in Ireland in the future with his wife, who is from the UK, Grant said for now the biggest opportunities were all in London.

For building what we are looking to do, the UK’s actually a perfect place. There are a lot of travel companies in London … and there is a massive pool of investors over here, it’s just so much bigger than in Dublin.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 17.21.12 YouTube / Touriocity YouTube / Touriocity / Touriocity

Touriocity is part of a new startup incubator called the Traveltech Lab – the first in Europe to pair young travel-technology firms with major corporate players in the industry.

It’s just much more conducive to getting a startup going because there are so many more potential partners here. In Dublin you have access to companies like Ryanair and Aer Lingus, but in London I have access to the whole spectrum.”

Like Kennedy, however, Grant said he found being able to tap into the diaspora’s rich vein of entrepreneurs had been a “massive help”.

Through the IIBN, where he was one of the first group to go through the new Future Leaders Programme, he found a mentor in Cork native Jonathan Grey, whose UK-based tech company Ovation Incentives has clients including Honda, Vodafone and Sky.

He mentored me when I was in a very, very tricky position. At the time I had two jobs: I was the founder of a digital agency and I was running Touriocity on the side. He mentored me through the whole period and gave me the confidence to go full-time.”

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