Tech start-up of the week: Keelvar

30 Jun 2013

Dr Alan Holland, founder, Keelvar

Our tech start-up of the week is Keelvar, a spin-out from University College Cork (UCC) that has pioneered a new type of software technology for governments and multinationals carrying out procurement for tenders on projects such as road building or the construction of new hospitals. The goal is to help such players reduce their procurement costs and also to open up the tender market so smaller companies can pitch for projects, founder Dr Alan Holland explains.

Keelvar is a spin-out from research that Holland, a former research fellow, was carrying out in the 4C laboratory in the Department of Computer Science at UCC. first reported on the software-as-a-service start-up last year when Keelvar raised a €750,000 investment. The funding round was led by ACT Venture Capital and with investment from Enterprise Equity and Enterprise Ireland.

At the time, Holland said the goal was to increase the company’s headcount to 18 people, a vision that had not wavered since. Keelvar, which is headquartered at the Rubicon Centre on the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) campus in Bishopstown, Cork, has also branched out and now has offices in Dublin and London.

Capturing savings

So, a quick recap on the software that Holland has developed. The aim of Keelvar’s technology is to help those procuring goods and services to capture more savings than under existing approaches.

As for Keelvar’s target market, Holland says the software is for those running tenders and procuring goods and services.

“We are currently focused on public sector procurement as there are numerous examples of inefficiencies where significant savings could be made if things were run a little differently,” he explains.

Opening up the market to smaller players

The majority of procurement software providers, according to Holland, focus on managing the procurement process.

“We complement these offerings and focus specifically on the actual bidding by ensuring the tender is designed in a way that will encourage smaller players to participate.”

He says that Keelvar also encourages package bidding that helps the communication of cost synergies.

“This essentially means that all suppliers can play to their strengths in a more open and fair contest, and the greater competition invariably leads to better results.”

Users of the software in Ireland and UK

So who is using Keelvar’s software at the minute? Holland says that the start-up has been generating “significant” interest in its offering given the disruptive nature of the solution and the extent of the possible savings the technology can capture.

“Public sector bodies are under pressure to deliver value while also facilitating SME access and we are uniquely placed to help them to achieve these,” he explains. “Some examples of clients in Ireland include Cork City Council, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Roads Authority.”

Already, he says Keelvar had gleaned significant interest from the UK.

“The UK government has created an innovative public procurement framework called G-Cloud and we are already accredited as a supplier on that.

He says that the Irish government has also signalled its intent in this area by recruiting Bill McCluggage as its new CIO.

“Given Bill’s track record it is quite the coup,” says Holland.

Describing the public sector in Ireland as becoming “increasingly innovative”, he says that the company has already helped such entities elicit “strong savings”.

In sight

And, as for the plan for the coming year, Holland says Keelvar will remain focused on product development and sales.

“We have a unique offering and intend to continue to invest in it so we can seek to drive further gains for those in procurement.”

But does Holland see Keelvar as being in the more ‘mature’ start-up category?

“The fact we have secured paying customers both domestically and internationally so early in our evolution means we are a little further along than many other Irish start-ups,” he claims.

“The key for us is to continue to invest in the product as well as to attract new talent.

“The market we are targeting is huge and we are already making great strides in building awareness amongst our target customers,” he adds.

Looking to the US

Turning to the US marketplace, Keelvar has a series of “high-level meetings” on the horizon for July with a number of what Holland describes as “major household names”.

“We are hopeful some of these will be fruitful. The beauty of our solution is such that the bigger the spend amount, the greater the savings,” he explains.

Encouraging spin-outs

Finally, based on his own experience as a researcher who has managed to make the leap from academia into the entrepreneurial space what would be Holland’s advice for other university or institute of technology researchers out there who are looking to commercialise their innovations?

“The first thing I would recommend researchers to do is to get out to talk to industry to see what the key challenges they face are.

“Many researchers are primarily desk-based whereas real insight is typically found in the field. I would also recommend they future-proof their skill set ­ perhaps by focusing on fields such as computer science,” he concludes.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic