Boole start-up of the week: Iconic, translation services company

14 Sep 2015

Iconic founders John Tinsley and Paraic Sheridan

Glasnevin-based Iconic provides cloud-based translation solutions to language service and translation companies and targets the language industry.

“In one line: we develop software that translates text between two languages,” explains Iconic’s CEO John Tinsley.

“Obviously, there’s a lot more to in than that, though. Iconic provides cloud-based machine translation solutions in for specialised, technical content, including intellectual property, financial services and life sciences.

“Our technology is highly sophisticated, having been developed over almost a decade of R&D with a European consortium of experts. Our focus is on building customised machine translation (MT) solutions with subject matter expertise that exceeds the needs of each individual client and project that we work on.

‘We see ourselves as the Rolls Royce of machine translation!’

“That is to say, developing automated translation technology that has been adapted to specific languages, content types and styles for superior quality solutions.

“For example, one of our core solutions is automated translation software for patents, which allows patent lawyers and professionals to scan the contents of patents in multiple languages instantly, without the need to translate them from scratch. Another popular application enables translators to automatically translate financial content, which can then be revised through post-editing to create perfect translations, saving them time and effort. In a nutshell, we see ourselves as the Rolls Royce of machine translation!”

The market

In recent weeks it emerged that Iconic raised €400,000 in seed funding from angel investors to target the €37bn global languages industry. The investment will pave the way for 15 new jobs at the company. The seed funding round of more than €400,000 came from a number of investors, including Enterprise Ireland, and business angel investment from Bloom Equity and the Boole Investment Syndicate through the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN).

“Iconic is targeting the language industry that is worth in excess of €37 billion annually,” Tinsley explains. “Estimated at US$10.6 billion by 2020, the automated translation market alone is set to explode as enterprises strive to achieve a global presence in over 177 countries. At Iconic, we help language service providers automate their translation processes, cut costs and increase profit margins. Their clients are then able to expand their businesses faster into new languages and industries.

“We also help global information providers to deliver their intelligence faster to market. Language technology is the key enabler in boosting growth and strengthening global competitiveness. The accuracy and quality of machine translation is now accelerating at a rapid pace, facilitating its speed of adoption and use. We already have clients spanning Europe, the US and Asia and our business is growing fast!”

The founders


Dr John Tinsley, co-founder & CEO, Iconic; Minister Damien English TD; Dr Páraic Sheridan, co-founder, Iconic

Co-founder, Dr. Páraic Sheridan, is an expert in cross-lingual information retrieval, holding a PhD from ETH Zurich, and has extensive commercial experience, having previously acted as an interim CEO for TextWise LLC in Syracuse, New York. He is also the current associate director of one of Ireland’s leading national research centres, the Adapt Centre.

Tinsley holds a PhD in machine translation. “I am proud to have personally pioneered the technology underpinning Iconic Translation machines over a decade of research at Dublin City University.

“The technology, and consequently the company, is essentially something that I have nurtured from my post-graduate days to now. I have also spent a significant amount of time on consulting and development of machine translation technology with commercial organisations and  leading global academic institutions, as well as the European Commission.”

The technology

As Tinsley explains it, modern approaches to machine translation work by using machine-learning techniques to “teach” computers how to translate by showing them millions of examples of previous translations. This is typically known as statistical machine translation and is the approach employed by the likes of Google Translate.

“We go two steps beyond that because, in order to build truly effective machine translation systems, this learning process must not only focus on previous examples of translation, but also on the linguistic relationship between two languages, and the style of the text that is being translated.

‘Diversity is also key! We are proud to have seven nationalities making up our current team’


“You can’t use the same process to translate a legal document into Chinese as you would to translate a sports website into Italian. This is our primary focus at Iconic. We develop custom solutions with subject matter expertise.

“The service needs to be accessible on-demand 24/7 in order to meet our client’s needs. The Iconic API (Application Programming Interface) allows users to connect directly to our service and retrieve translations from the cloud instantaneously. Language service providers and other users can integrate machine translation software seamlessly into their applications and workflow tools without any disruption.”

The road to success

The ultimate goal is to build a successful technology company: “From Iconic’s perspective, to develop translation technology that breaks down language barriers to international communication and commerce.

“We recently announced an investment round of more than €400,000 that we raised from a number of investors including Bloom Equity and the Boole investment Syndicate through the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN), along with the support of Enterprise Ireland.

“At the same, we announced the creation of 15 new jobs, which will be filled in 2016 and will bring the total employment at the company up to 25. In fact, we are actually moving offices this week to accommodate our expanding workforce. We are currently working with a number of clients across the globe, but are delighted to have also just won a substantial contract with one of the world’s largest information providers. We’ve translated more than 5bn words across dozens of languages to date and things are showing no sign of slowing down!”

Biggest challenges

Tinsley says that the biggest challenge has been putting together a great team. “It’s a lot harder and more time consuming than I could have imagined.

“My advice to anyone else starting a business in Ireland would be to identify the gaps in your founding team’s skillset as quickly as possible and work on surrounding yourself with great people – not only employees, but mentors, advisers, and even the right service providers when it comes to legal and financial support.

“Also, when recruiting, don’t be afraid to look far and wide. Yes, there are great people in Ireland but it can also be really beneficial to bring experience and perspectives from abroad to your team.”

Dublin’s start-up scene is not all rosy

Tinsley describes the Dublin start-up scheme as close-knit. “With the schemes in place through Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, they have created a fantastic environment to get young companies off the ground. I can tell you this from experience having come through a number of EI programs such as the third-level commercialisation track and the HPSU programme.

“The presence of international tech companies, the ability to attract global industry events, and certain incentives such as the Critical Skills Work Permit programme all combine to create an accommodating start-up eco-system.

‘The capital gains tax system is a real disincentive for entrepreneurs in Ireland’


“Diversity is also key! We are proud to have seven nationalities making up our current team. Irish people are also keen to help each other out in a way that no other nation does. What makes it special is having past entrepreneurs helping my generation to grow and scale into global markets.

“The capital gains tax system is a real disincentive for entrepreneurs in Ireland. This has been recognised to an extent by the Government so hopefully something can be done about it in the near future.”

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