‘If you haven’t found a big problem to solve, you won’t have start-up success’

23 Mar 2021

Aisling O’Neill. Image: Patrick Browne

ArcLabs’ Aisling O’Neill gives her advice for start-up founders, from the importance of tackling a big problem to the value of entrepreneurial wellbeing.

Dr Aisling O’Neill is manager of ArcLabs Research and Innovation Centre – Waterford Institute of Technology’s business incubator that supports entrepreneurship in the south-east of Ireland from its bases in Waterford and Kilkenny.

O’Neill has more than 10 years’ experience working across various research and innovation roles, completing her PhD in entrepreneurship at Waterford Institute of Technology in 2016. She was recently named president of Network Ireland for 2021, where she is helping the organisation drive the personal and professional development of women around the country.

‘Periods of acceleration are absolutely necessary but the reality is that starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint.’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m the manager of ArcLabs, which is an ecosystem of entrepreneurship. We’re building and maintaining the entrepreneurial pipeline for the south-east of Ireland so I get to work with people at all levels of the process, from the entrepreneurs themselves to academics, existing businesses, mentors and public stakeholders, as we try to guide businesses from start-up to local and global levels.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

The greatest opportunities lie in the greatest challenges we face as a society. Areas such as agritech, molecular communications, integrating digital technology and science for the management and detection of disease, for example.

I’m getting to see some really interesting projects in future technology led by TSSG, WIT’s world-class ICT research institute which is co-located with ArcLabs. There, for example, they are engineering biotech cells for implantation in patients for epilepsy management, as well as projects looking at how we develop detection of other illnesses and more.

Seeing progress in the agritech space is really exciting too and with PACE (Precision Agriculture Centre of Excellence) established in our ArcLabs site in Kilkenny, we’re seeing so much interesting work in this space which is ultimately aimed at sustainably feeding the world’s population – a worthwhile mission by any standard.

Working with start-ups in the digital technology space means that in ArcLabs we see a huge variety of enterprises focusing on fintech, communications, intelligent transport, KYC etc. Technology is layered across all disciplines now and it’s just so exciting to see the diversity of opportunities emerging.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

In my experience, there’s room for both. There are innate characteristics that definitely help such as determination, resilience, tenacity and an aptitude for problem-solving. But instincts can also be nurtured along the way.

In Ireland, there are many supports such as Enterprise Ireland, organisations like ourselves at ArcLabs and other accelerator programmes, Local Enterprise Offices and many more that are there to help – not to mention my great friends and colleagues at Network Ireland.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Empathy for customers is so important and I think it’s only beginning to get the recognition it deserves. You can’t solve a problem without having empathy for the customer’s situation – it’s what drives you to offer them your product or solution.

Along with that, of course you need a strong leader, someone who can interact effectively with the team, be innovative and bring flexibility, focus and determination to the project.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

It’s about finding balance rather than focusing on any particular thing. I’m very interested in the area of entrepreneurial wellbeing at the moment. Business start-ups are hectic and once things take off they consume a massive amount of energy. There’s no doubt that periods of acceleration are absolutely necessary but the reality is that starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

Entrepreneurs need to look at exercise and mental health techniques like meditation or mindfulness. Thankfully these are becoming more popular among the business people I know. One entrepreneur I’m working with swears by the Wim Hof Method, which involves a lot of ice baths and cold showers – sounds tough going but it seems to work for him!

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?
  • Your team and the talent they contribute is number one
  • Investment, of course – you can’t travel far with an idea and no financing
  • An awareness of the innovation structures offered by the State is extremely helpful
How do you assemble a good team?

Stand back and figure out what skills your business needs. Ensuring a diversity of background and discipline will provide the best ground for problem-solving.

Your longlist can be made up of people you know can offer those. From there, you can refine the list according to people who offer what you need, and who you know you can work with. You don’t need to be friends, but trust is of vital importance and it’s a very long and hard journey if you can’t get along.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

A big problem. If you haven’t found a big problem that needs solving, you’re never going to have the success you want.

At ArcLabs, when we’re shortlisting applicants for accelerator programmes, something that offers an ‘ok’ solution to a big problem will get a better response from our side than a ‘good’ solution to a problem that isn’t of great importance.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

The biggest mistake is around timelines. People we engage with will often need a sense check on how long they think something will take to achieve, or how long they’ll wait until they reach a certain milestone.

They’ll have much more success when looking for funding if they’ve set realistic targets. Investors will be happier to invest a larger sum in something that is well thought out and pays off long term, rather than investing a small amount in a project that is rushed and destined for collapse because of a failure in the preparations.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Mentors are essential. Similar to building a team for a project, it’s important entrepreneurs seek out a mentor that has something of value to offer your particular business.

Entrepreneurs must be able to listen if a mentor tells them their process or judgment is wide of the mark. Seeking out someone who agrees with you all the time isn’t going to work – a useful mentor will push you to be your best.

At Network Ireland, we have a brilliant mentorship programme where we connect people with like-minded entrepreneurs who can share their insights and experience with fellow members. It’s been really useful in the past 12 months in particular and the feedback has been fantastic.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Love the problem. The problem you’re trying to solve has to be something you’re incredibly passionate about. Make sure it’s something that will get between you and your sleep – but this is why it’s also important to look after your wellbeing!

Don’t try and go it alone. Seek out the relevant support bodies, innovation centres and incubators that can support you and connect you to the right people to make the path as smooth as possible.

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