Start-up of the week: Mint Tek Circuits

20 Apr 2015

Our start-up of the week Mint Tek Circuits makes it easier, faster and cheaper for hardware developers to make prototypes, transforming the supply chain into an on-demand service.

“Our target market is hardware start-ups, universities and research centres,” explains Siobhán ní Chofaigh, co-founder and CEO of Mint Tek.

“These companies have the least resources and expertise to qualify multiple vendors. Their world is very competitive and they need fast access to pricing and technology.

“At the same time we are developing a university programme to understand and exploit the business potential within these organisations. New start-ups often develop within these centres and the potential for marketing our name and brand is very high.”

The market

Ní Chofaigh explained that the total addressable market that Mint Tek is targeting in Europe is €480m based on market knowledge from European-based prototype printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers.

“We believe based on increased investment in hardware development, increased penetration of applications of the internet of things and the increased numbers in combined courses such a mechatronics, smart machines and bioelectronics, will result in a renewed interest and new involvement in electronics development.

“This we forecast will show an increase in this market of approximately 8pc year on year. The Gartner report on the internet of things validates this forecast.

The founders

Pictured: Mint Tek co-founders Georgina Kearney and Siobhán ní Chofaigh

“I have been in the field of electronics for more years than I care to admit,” ní Chofaigh said. “I worked with clients to develop and supply strategic solutions to industry problems. I worked in technology, sales and marketing, revenue growth and channel development within both multinational such as Siemens, Infineon, Sanmina SCI and most recently Beta LAYOUT Ltd.

“I’ve always been interested in electronics – from the age of 12 I was fixing things. I invented many products in my head but they never got past my ideas notebook, I never knew how.  Now, it’s easier than ever to get a product to market – open sourcing, crowd-funding and freelancers all combine to help.  In recent years I have spent time with these makers and communities finding ways to reach them and develop business with them. It always struck me that the prototype business was harder than it needed to be and that there must be a better way.”

Ní Chofaigh’s co-founder Georgina Kearney is a qualified Chartered Management Accountant (CIMA) and has worked for years in finance and management roles, specialising in overall company budgeting, cost review, revenue growth and understanding and driving profitability. She has also headed up many projects and software implementations, and held management positions in quality and operations roles. She has worked for multinationals, including Oracle and Symantec, and for local business enterprises and government organisations.

“Georgina is in truth a free spirit who left the corporate world to start her own coaching business.  During time outs on the Camino de Santiago and teaching in South America she often thought of starting her own successful, global business,” ní Chofaigh explained.

“Georgina and I met while studying an MBA in Smurfit. When I contacted her during the summer about becoming a co-founder she was delighted to take the opportunity, knowing that we make a good team, with my understanding of the industry and its challenges and her excelling at creating clear and practical plans.  She has really taken the digital marketing boards by the neck and is pushing us to use them, contribute and work them to get our message out.”

The technology

Putting the developer first, Mint Tek offers a unique online service that connects inventors with suppliers.

“This platform allows hardware developers access to best pricing and global suppliers for their prototype requirements. Additional services such as layout, assembly and 3D Models will add further value.

“The goal is to help people regardless of technical know-how turn their ideas into prototypes.  We aim to be the global go-to site for people with hardware ideas and circuit designs and to be a major player in the hardware development ecosystem.”

Proving the concept

Ní Chofaigh said that at the moment as a test case Mint Tek is using old fashioned sales: making calls and visits.

“While this is proving the concept the cost of acquisition of customers is too high for long-term growth and scale.

“We have started version one of our online sales platform. To access these customers we have developed digital strategies working with companies such as BlueChief Solutions and IDF Marketing and are in discussion with other companies in the same ecosystem about partnership potentials.

“We are trading and have generated sales and successfully shipped product.

“Bob Lee, another MBA classmate, became an investor and is heading up our advisory board. Bob is a great asset because of his expertise in building trust and communication through his career as MD with Great Places to Work.”

Ní Chofaigh said that further investment has been made by Lucey Technologies and its input into designing the platform will lead to a robust product that could be scaled.

“Now, we need further investment and are actively chasing a few key accelerators and start funds such as Enterprise Ireland’s competitive start fund. 

“We’ve recently been approved for the EIIS tax relief scheme, where investors can claim tax relief on their investment. We’re preparing the legal documents and the pitch deck.

“The next funding round is important to get us off the isle of Ireland and into the user’s sights.”

Don’t lose sight of goals amidst the hustle

Ní Chofaigh speaks for all start-ups when she says that money is always a worry. “The lack of it, the scarcity of it, everything needs money. We’ve gotten good at getting bang for it but it does rear its beautiful, green head at those 3am sleepless moments.

“There is a lot of help but it’s not always so easy to find out about it. For example, the Revenue Commissioners have a seed capital investment scheme. So you can invest your money in the company and claim back tax from previous years’ employment. I was made redundant in June 2014 and first got confirmation of this scheme at a WaSup Seminar with Ian Lucey in October. My redundancy was well spent by then.

“We still find ourselves scurrying after funding and learning that we’re too early or not ready. All this takes away from our real objective – creating sales, talking to potential customers and users.

“It’s very easy to lose sight of the goal of the company – build a business, hustle, hustle, hustle. The chasing money train sucks up a lot of time.

“I know the authorities are working hard to tie up all the loose ends. We can’t laud Harriet Cotter or Jean O’Sullivan enough for information and support. It would be great for future start-ups if they could have one development officer who advised on revenue, social protection, LEO and EI help.”

The start-up scene is not all moonlight and roses

Ní Chofaigh describes the current start-up scene in Ireland as vibrant, but has a few caveats.

“I’ve worked in and around Silicon Valley with a number of companies and Ireland, specifically Dublin, has that vibe. There is an optimism and an ‘is feidir linn’ attitude that is allowing people to stand up and discuss their ideas without the standard Irish phrases of ‘sure that’ll never work’ or ‘well if it was a good idea someone else would be doing it’.

“There is lots of support and advice from EI, LEO, accelerators and other groups. The goodwill that is there from seasoned and successful business people is unreal. Busy people like Sean O’Sullivan of SOS Ventures and Noel Dempsey have given their time and their advice to us. I’m sure it’s the same in every country but the openness and generosity is amazing.”

But ní Chofaigh says it is not all moonlight and roses in the start-up world and, while there are a myriad of accelerators and seminars that are run by naturally positive people who “accentuate the positive”, there is a downside.

“Often they happen just when you’re feeling most positive and infallible. There are the lows when the founders argue and sometimes fall out, the depths of the 3am wake up worry and when that funding or that big order falls through.

“But it’s normal and part of it. Be mindful that you can spend your time going from seminar, to a start-up weekend, to a hackathon to a conference, etc. Ian Lucey warns of being a ‘wantrepreneur’. The objective is to start and work a business not go to groovy sessions.

“Talk to everyone keep pitching, hustling and smiling. Ask for help; it’s a caring, giving community. Help is not a finite resource and you’d be surprised how much help people will give.

“And at the end of the day whatever happens you will have fun and a great story to tell.”

Printed circuit board image via Shutterstock

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