Tech start-up of the week: NVMdurance

9 Aug 2014

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NVMdurance CEO Pearse Coyle

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Our tech start-up of the week is NVMdurance, a Dublin-based flash optimisation technology company that intends to disrupt the entire US$28bn storage market.

The company’s technology extends the life of solid state flash storage disks by more than 20 times by extending the endurance of the flash memory on 1x nm chips.

NVMdurance, a spin-out company from the NDRC, last year raised seed funding of €250,000 from New Venture Partners. Earlier this week, we reported the company succeeded in raising a further US$800,000 from original investors New Venture Partners, the NDRC, and new investors ACT Venture Capital and Enterprise Ireland.

“NVMdurance is about non-volatile memory endurance,” said CEO Pearse Coyle. “Flash memory is becoming the dominant medium for non-volatile storage, ie, the stuff that keeps your data when you switch off the computer, but after a certain number of reads and writes flash memory simply wears out.

“This so-called ‘endurance’ problem dogs the flash memory business and is retarding its growth, particularly its efforts to have solid state disks (SSDs) fully replace hard disk drives (HDDs).

“We make flash memory last at least 20 times longer – longer than anyone else in the world can.”

The market

What is fascinating about NVMdurance is the fact it is a young Irish company targeting the whole US$28bn flash memory industry, starting immediately with the manufacturers of SSDs.

“These markets are growing at 20pc and 40pc per annum respectively and are crying out for good solutions to the endurance problem, particularly because the six flash fabricators are making flash denser and cheaper per gigabyte (GB) and as they do its endurance further deteriorates.

The founders

Anyone who has been watching the genesis of the Irish start-up scene over the last decade would be familiar with Coyle.

He has been the lead commercial guy in several successful Irish tech ventures, including Eurologic, which gave him his grounding in data storage.

“I’ve also founded two less successful start-ups of my own. In recent years, through the venture CorporateSpinouts.com, I’ve been focused on commercialising spin-outs from research labs and that’s how I met Conor Ryan and Joe Sullivan, the inventors of this technology.

“This one was too good to just spin-out from the NDRC so I took the CEO role, at least until we do the next funding round.”

The technology

Co-founder Joe Sullivan worked on non-volatile memory at Analog in Limerick and spent a lot of time figuring out how to solve the endurance problem for NOR flash memory.  

Early on he teamed up with Conor Ryan of the University of Limerick because Sullivan recognised that the key to extending the endurance was to vary the operating parameters of the flash memory gradually through the lifetime of the flash, as opposed to not varying them at all, which is the norm.

Sullivan, by now lecturing at Limerick Institute of Technology, recognised that determining the optimum parameter values could not be done manually and the problem needed a very sophisticated software approach, which is where Ryan came in.

In the past 14 years, they tried several different approaches and finally settled on NVMdurance’s present machine-learning approach, which has proved much more successful than expected. 

“The ultimate goal is to deploy product in co-operation with flash memory fabricators or major SSD manufacturers that clearly proves our technical leadership in delivering a key feature for a large and fast-growing market,” Coyle said.

“When we can demonstrate this we will have a very valuable venture and whether we sell-out early or stay longer in the game remains to be seen.”

Roller-coaster

It has been something of a roller-coaster ride for the young company.

“Just as we secured our US seed investor last year we went to the world’s major annual Flash Memory Summit in Santa Clara and won the Most Innovative Technology award – a minor detail being that I spent the week of the show recovering from a near-fatal dose of pneumococcal pneumonia contracted en-route.

“Back then we believed we could only extend endurance 10-fold.

“Cash-wise we’ve been pretty lean all the way so far and have done two small rounds of investment – one just announced – that have each funded us just enough to get to the next key milestone.

“We have just completed multiple commercial trials and have met or exceeded the targets set. We’re now in commercial negotiations with several of the major players and have new interest from some of those who had originally passed.”

Coyle said the company has very supportive investors and a decision needs to be made whether or not to bring a new investor into the next round of funding, which will be triggered by a commercial deal.

“NDRC originally invested and took the guys in at my insistence. New Venture Partners of the US came in really early also, which was a great boost for the venture. ACT joined the round we’ve just announced.”

Shooting for the stars

Coyle said the major challenges faced by NVMdurance so far have been on the funding front but also because technical trials have taken longer than expected.

“We had pretty typical challenges in that few believed we could do this but those who invested early look like they will be well rewarded.

“We also had a big funding challenge in that it took us a lot longer than expected to complete our technical trials but we managed to stretch our cash wonderfully and survived that one.

“We’re really shooting for the stars – solving a very commercially significant problem – and those potential customers and investors who ‘got it’ early have been key to our progress.”

A challenging investment climate

As a seasoned start-up leader, Coyle believes the tech start-up scene in Ireland has never been greater but warns the investment climate is far from ideal.

“We have one of the most promising Irish tech ventures but it was murder to get a hearing from the local venture capitalists or even the US-backed venture capitalists. In fairness, most of them just did not know our space and so exited early but a few did not even respond to multiple approaches.

“ACT Venture Capital did understand our space and although it was obvious to them that they were the last man standing, in our most recent efforts to secure one new investor, they deserve a lot of credit for never trying to strong-arm us once they were in that position.”

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com