Ireland’s future founders: How Patch is shaping young minds

17 Aug 2023

Image: Flavia Bianchi/Patch

Patch is a one-of-a-kind accelerator for young entrepreneurs aged 15 to 21. And at its heart is a commitment to making innovation more accessible.

Jack O’Regan Kenny is a man of many talents. The young engineer-turned-founder leads the Patch accelerator for kids and young adults from across Ireland and beyond. In fact, at 21 years of age, O’Regan Kenny is, funnily enough, still eligible to apply for Patch himself.

Back by Stripe, Dogpatch Labs and the NDRC, Ireland’s national accelerator programme, Patch is to young entrepreneurs what BT Young Scientist is to young STEM students.

It was founded by Tom McCarthy in 2018 to create and instil a Silicon Valley mindset among the Patchers, as they now call themselves. Over the years, the accelerator has grown from starting off with just 12 participants to more than 30 this year.

As the effects of Covid-19 began to wane after the 2020-21 period, Patch started to gain momentum and those backing it decided it was time to make it big.

“In 2022, we levelled it up a bit,” O’Regan Kenny, who was part of the programme in 2020, told me recently. “We brought in a dedicated programme manager, Stripe came on as a sponsor and suddenly the amount of stuff we could do in the programme got a lot greater.”

Making Patch more accessible

Things were vastly different when he was part of Patch. Largely online because of Covid, the then 18-year-old didn’t get any of the perks the current cohort enjoys: paid accommodation and food, a trip to London and, in the case of one lucky Patcher, a ticket to fly to Dublin from India.

“Like I know for me, I was working as a plumber alongside me doing Patch just to get my food,” O’Regan Kenny said. “Now, we can have better demo days in-person, get in really cool speakers, provide food and accommodation for everyone – and just make Patch a lot more accessible.”

Today’s Demo Day is a culmination of seven weeks of intense networking, brainstorming, building and pitching practice. Young minds between the ages of 15 to 21 from all corners of the island, and even some from abroad, lived and worked together to come up with innovative ideas for start-ups.

And what better way to learn than by being amid the very doyens of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem who congregate everyday at Dogpatch Labs, a start-up hub situated in the heart of Dublin’s Docklands, right next to EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum. Ironically, while the building next door tells tales of the Irish leaving for a better life on foreign shores, Dogpatch Labs has been brewing a concoction of young minds set to make the future Ireland a better place to live in, one that attracts others from abroad.

But Patch has not only been growing in size and scale. This year’s cohort represents the most diverse in the programme’s five-year history, with almost half of the participants being young women and more than 60pc based outside Dublin.

“You’d expect a course for doing STEM projects would get like a really homogenous group of stereotypical people, but it’s nothing like that at all,” said Fearghal Desmond, a 19-year-old student of engineering at University College Cork and one of the Patchers.

“There’s no two people who are the same. You’ve got this huge diversity of backgrounds which, for me, was eye-opening because I went to a private secondary school where most of the people were well-off. And then suddenly, you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise how hard it was for people to get into STEM’”.

The Cork-native has built a project called Induct that is building technology that will help onboard people into access control systems at buildings much more effectively. The idea emerged after Desmond lost his own fob to enter Dogpatch Labs two weeks into Patch.

“Instead of going down to the reception and asking for one, which wouldn’t work because there’s a six week waiting time and you need to pay a fine, I decided to use a device to just clone my card,” he explained candidly, just minutes after rehearsing his pitch for Demo Day.

“So, I had copied the information from the card previously and I threw it on my new keycard on and it worked. Now, we’re developing our own system because this problem exists everywhere.”

Taking strides to improve

While Desmond and his team are hoping to bag funding and transform Induct from a Patch project into a full-blown start-up, others decided to deep-dive into building projects with the intention of learning more about STEM.

One such Patcher was Alanna Hayes, an 18-year-old school student from Co Clare, who is part of a team that built Stride, a project on a mission to replace orthotic insoles – which two people on the team use – with automatically adjustable ones using new technology.

“Orthotic insoles are between €‎500 and €‎800 and you have to get them replaced every two years. Then there’s the doctor’s appointments that cost €‎120 each, so it’s an expensive and lifelong issue,” Hayes told me, adding jokingly: “So we took strides to solve that.”

Now that Demo Day is here, O’Regan Kenny said he is not looking forward to what he calls post-Patch depression. With all the students getting a final goodbye tomorrow, Patch’s young managing director will be back in action next week, trying to find new sponsors and partners for next year’s programme.

“Our future strategy depends on how well this accelerator runs. So, when we say we’re expanding, we’re making a conscious effort to identify talent in other regions. We want to create a year-round home for ambitious people and find as many ways as we can to support them,” he said.

“Patch is a genuinely wholesome and nice community. If you include the current cohort, we have about 120 alumni. It’s great when you see two Patchers meet each other, even if they’re three cohorts apart, and there’s an immediate camaraderie and knowledge that you can talk about whatever you want – and even if they don’t get it, they’ll try to and then they’ll want to listen.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic