Clear Angle Technologies taps into energy management drive

29 Jan 2012

Barry Cullen and Kevin O'Toole, co-founders of the Irish clean-tech start-up Clear Angle Technologies

Set up in mid-2010 Clear Angle Technologies is the brainchild of Barry Cullen and Kevin O’Toole. The duo came up with the idea for the start-up when they were doing engineering PhDs at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Clear Angle Technologies provides R&D consultancy and contracting to companies in sectors such as energy systems, robotics and mechatronics and assistive technologies.

“We are very much an engineering R&D company in that we work with clients to help them develop concepts and prototypes for products and technologies,” explains Cullen, who is now CEO of Clear Angle.

The company is a clear example of the way science ideas can morph into commercial ventures. Applied research is one area that Irish Government is planning to increase its focus on, especially via Science Foundation Ireland, when the results of the Research Prioritisation Group are published soon.

University spin-out

O’Toole and Cullen were both doing PhDs in the College of Engineering at DIT, Bolton Street and that’s when they decided to pool their resources to start up the venture.

As Cullen explains: “My own research was focused on low-grade heat recovery and energy efficiency in industrial engine systems, whilst Kevin was working in robotics and control systems. We were both interested in the area of domestic energy monitoring and control and we had some know-how built up in that space so we decided to form a company and apply to the DIT Hothouse programme to see about developing the product concept further.”

Coincidentally Clear Angle won the Commercialisation of Research award in November 2011 at the annual DIT Hothouse Awards for its patented automotive heat recovery technology.

The company currently employs four people, but Cullen says they often draw upon the expertise of about 10 sub-contract specialists of around 10.

“Our plan to start taking as much of this talent as possible in-house throughout 2012.”

According to Cullen, the original plan was to set up with the intention of developing a product using some IP that they had been batting around for a while in the area of domestic energy management technologies.

“In classic start-up fashion, that got blown out of the water about six months later!” he says.

Starting from scratch

While they did abandon their original business idea after six months, and had to go back to the drawing board, O’Toole, who is now CTO, says that himself and Cullen were lucky in that they had built up a name for ourselves through their research contacts in DIT.

“We were able to keep the lights on by doing private consultancy and contracting work for commercial clients. It turned out well for us in the end because our consultancy and contracting work is thriving and we are working with a lot of clients helping to realise next-generation products and technologies,” explains O’Toole.

Their current target market includes R&D managers and technology transfer professionals across the academic, entrepreneurial, SME and multinational sectors;

“It’s anyone looking to access high-value engineering and technology R&D expertise to help add value to their own R&D and product development initiatives,” explains Cullen.

Commericalisation plans for heat recovery device

The company is also actively developing some of its own in-house technologies that Cullen and O’Toole hope to commercialise in 2012.

“The first of these in-house efforts involves a novel heat recovery device for automotive engines. This is really only coming to fruition as we speak, so we may be approaching the investment community to help us move these a bit later in the year.

While Clear Angle has been largely self-financed to date, it has received some grant financing to help get up and running.

“As with most start-ups, the business model has been necessarily fluid throughout the formative stages, so it is only really now that we are converging on the model that works well for us, which is to provide a contracting and consultancy service to external clients whilst also remaining active in our own in-house product and technology development initiatives.”

Grant support and mentoring

O’Toole points to how Clear Angle has received support from Dublin City Enterprise Board (DCEB) and Enterprise Ireland.

“We have been approved for a Feasibility Grant through the DCEB which is helping us to develop one of our in-house technologies and to investigate the market. Whilst we were on the Hothouse programme we benefitted from business mentoring too. We have also worked closely with our former colleagues and students in some of the different colleges in DIT who really helped us shape aspects of our strategy and implementation,” he says.

Cullen also says that participating in the 2010/2011 Hothouse programme really helped get the company up and running.

And as for winning the Commercialisation of Research award in November 2011 for its patented automotive heat recovery technology, Cullen is optimistic. “We are having some success developing the commercialisation strategy for this as we speak, so watch this space!

Science scope

He is also upbeat about Ireland’s science community and applied research.

“There have been a number of great moves in this space in Ireland recently – some of the largest multinationals in the world are setting up their energy and clean-tech R&D labs here with the aim of developing technology that can be commercialised internationally in the short to medium term. The net effect is that Ireland as a whole and Dublin in particular are now becoming synonymous with high-tech research and innovation. I think the scientific and engineering research communities here are really responding to this and realising that there is both commercial and societal value in bringing their ideas from the lab bench to the real world,” says Cullen.

And Cullen’s and O’Toole’s advice for other aspiring tech start-ups out there?

“We had a great experience with an incubation programme, DIT Hothouse, so if you have an idea or are in start-up phase, get talking to your local incubation centre and see about getting into a programme. It’s not all about financial support. The buzz and excitement of interacting with other entrepreneurs is hugely rewarding in itself and having a network of fellow start-ups is a great way to trouble-shoot common problems and to hear diverse opinions and advice. They will also keep you up to date on the best options for financing and investment as you develop your business,” say the duo.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic