From the campus: how TSSG created the template for start-up success (video)

23 Oct 2014

Eamonn de Leastar, co-founder and CTO of TSSG; Prof Willie Donnelly, VP of research and director, TSSG; Barry Downes, CEO of TSSG and FeedHenry founder; and Mícheál Ó Foghlú, CTO of FeedHenry

Red Hat’s acquisition of Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) spin-out FeedHenry last month for €63.5m must rank as one of the biggest acquisitions of a campus company in Irish academic history.

“When I came back to Waterford and began working with Willie Donnelly at WIT’s Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) Waterford had no multinationals to speak of so I suppose you could say we brought one in ourselves,” says TSSG chief executive Barry Downes, who is incidentally the founder of FeedHenry.

Last month’s acquisition of FeedHenry, which spun out of the TSSG in 2010 to create a “mobile first platform for organisations that include Aer Lingus and O2 UK, is the direct result of research emerging from WIT and being transferred in such a way as to create a viable company that employs over 100 people, who are now employees of Red Hat.

As Downes said, if the area didn’t have a multinational, they would bring one there themselves.

Silicon fjord

Located on a hill that slopes gently down to one of the natural fjords that gives Waterford its name – interrupted of course by a motorway – TSSG is a campus that operates separate to the main WIT campus in Waterford city.

In the late 1990s Professor Willie Donnelly succeeded in pulling together funding in order to pursue a vision that involved academics working in a focused way with high potential start-ups as a surefire way of commercialising research and making technology transfer profitable.

“We built a research and innovation centre which at the time was really unique, there were not many research and innovation centres like it in Ireland and now the model is being replicated across Ireland.

“This was an environment where entrepreneurs where HSPSUs and academics shared a common space.

“The dynamic of this centre was really about getting people to share ideas and talk about things, getting academics to understand the challenges that were there in industry and how to partner with academics.”

Donnelly said one of the missing ingredients was somebody who knew how to bring ideas to the market.

That person turned out to be Barry Downes, a WIT graduate who had just returned to Waterford after working in the US technology industry and in Dublin’s start-up scene.

“In a period of ten years from 2004 to 2014 when we look back at what we were doing, we discovered that first of all we had built and spun out 10 companies directly from TSSG and secondly we had created 600 jobs in the region,” Donnelly said.

“We never lost our focus on world class research, that drives the innovation and product creation.

“That grew and grew and we became the world leader in the area of mobile services and communications services.

“We have built a community of researchers and innovators that really is still  unique in the Irish academic environment.”

Methodology for successful start-ups

If you look very closely at what Donnelly, Downes and their team have created in TSSG it is in effect an assembly line of resources and skills that can be drawn upon to make successful start-ups happen.

“The core idea is to take graduates from WIT or from across Europe as well as people who have commercial experience and put them in cross-functional hot teams to create cool technologies,” Downes explained.

“For me it is very personal, I’m from Waterford, I’m a graduate from WIT, when I graduated there was no IT base in Waterford, Waterford crystal had a small IT department

“When I came here first I was really attracted by this concept of building start-ups based upon research.

“We strongly felt that if we were building software we wanted it to work and we didn’t if we were transferring the licensing software out into the start-up community, we didn’t want them to have to rebuild it which was the case in other research groups.

“That was a critical part of FeedHenry, when we transferred it out in 2010 it was a working product.”

Downes says the TSSG has focused on building up exterise in the areas of design and usability as well as commercialization and other core groups that can be drawn upon by start-ups for resources and know-how.

“We have thematic research units as well as groups dedicated to mobile services, data mining, social computing and they within them have R&D and commercialisation embedded it in each organisation.”

The new generation of TSSG companies

The internet of things is a theme that runs through TSSG and only last month WIT signed a memorandum of understanding to target €82m in EU funding under the Horizon 2020 programme to fund 10 internet of things start-ups.

Another example of how TSSG is blending technology with real life matters like farming can be seen I the new €446,000 collaboration between major Irish dairy producers Glanbia and Dairygold whereby data analytics and big data will be employed to help boost milk production. The collaboration involves researchers from Waterford Institute of Technology’s TSSG, Cork Institute of Technology and Teagasc collaborating with the the dairy producers on the ‘Smart Appi’ Project.

In the second video above you will see an interview with Sinead Quealy, a TSSG researcher working on the Smart Appi and Precision Dairy project, who highlights how intrinsic a link there exists between new technology and advances in food production.

We also spoke to Chris Kennedy of FRAGD who is intent on creating a global destination for gamers and gaming fans.

We spoke to Kevin Doolin, COO of TSSG, who is creating the fuseami SOCIETIES platform, an EU FP7-funded effort to harness social media and mobile technologies to build contextually useful social media communities in areas ranging from disaster response to community building.

We also spoke to Cian Ó Maidín from Node.js focused software start-up NearForm which is on the cusp of doubling in size from 30 people to 60 people in the coming year.

When asked if the €63.5m acquisition of FeedHenry was an unexpected outcome, Downes said it didn’t come as a surprise.

“This is a hugely optimistic place and so with all of our companies we always believed they were going to be hugely successful.

“That’s part of being an entrepreneur – to be able to be resilient to the knocks you get a long the way, you have to have that belief.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years