Tech start-up of the week: Astute Labs

6 May 2012

Richard Johnston, founder, Astute Labs

Our tech start-up of the week is Astute Labs, a new Belfast-based venture that is creating app kits for schools to communicate with both parents and pupils.

Richard Johnston is the founder of the start-up, which he says he set up in 2009 as a means of experimenting in the mobile app space.

He says that the company is aiming to provide a one-stop communication toolkit for communities, such as schools, looking to engage members via apps, mobile websites and regular websites.

I have always coded as a hobby, starting on my father’s Commodore 64, so when app technology started becoming accessible, I was hooked,” he explains.

Since then, Astute Labs has morphed to employ six people in total, with the team spread across development, sales and marketing and accounts.

“We also have regular input from our board members,” explains Johnston.

School App Kit
Right now Astute Labs’ main product is its School App Kit.

“I am a parent myself and my wife is a teacher. I am really aware how hard it is for parents to feel informed about school activities, and how difficult it is for teachers to engage parents when they already have a heavy workload,” says Johnston.

He says that he saw the potential for a school app-web integrated solution rather children having to ferry notes in their schoolbag or a standalone website with limited administrator access.

For its target market, Johnston says his first customer was in the Middle East, so Astute Labs appears to have its sights set on the global marketplace

“Our customers come from the US, the UK and Northern Ireland. We’ve no customers in Ireland yet though!”

As for the response to the School App Kit so far, he says that teachers have told the company that now takes them minutes to communicate to parents what previously took an hour or more.

“They can upload news, events and photos from anywhere.”

Kids are using App Kit
According to Johnston the most exciting development has been how pupils have used the App Kit.

“In our GEMS Royal Dubai School, the pupils have an App club where they write stories to publish, have them peer reviewed and then approved by a teacher. It is great to talk to these pupils who are loving the app.”

The company is based at Northern Ireland Science Park, and Johnston says it is a great base for allowing you to connect with other start ups on a casual basis.

“We can talk to people with similar business experiences and challenges in the corridors or canteen. It is difficult to put a price on that. We also have access to investment syndicates and focused workshops on issues facing start-ups,” he says.

As for Johnston’s own background it is quite an eclectic one. Having studied theology at Queen’s University Belfast, he worked for an all-Ireland charity and then followed his father’s footsteps by going into financial advising.

“As I’ve said, I have always coded as a hobby. So the evolution of apps and the ability to control a small screen space really excited me. It’s been my focus for the past three years now.”

Invest NI Propel programme
Astute Labs was also one of 15 companies in Northern Ireland to get on the Invest Northern Ireland (NI) Propel programme between 2011 and 2012.

“We also got additional funding from Invest NI. Crucially, in February, the institutional investor E-Synergy gave us financial backing alongside private investors,” says Johnston.

And the plan for 2012, he says, is to get more schools using School App Kit.

“We want to evolve our product to meet school needs and for our underlying technology to be a first-class toolkit for communities looking to engage with their members and stakeholders.”

Starting out
Talking about the challenges facing start-ups, Johnston says that you face financial decisions and challenges.

“I have also learnt that it takes four times as long to do what you anticipated – that’s my rule of thumb now!”

His advice for other self-starters is to focus on the market and the customer.

“As part of the tech community, the temptation is to focus on coding and the technology itself. But you’ve got to have customers who are willing to pay money for what you are making. You have got to ask them what they want,” he adds.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic