Tech start-up of the week:

8 Jul 2012

Vincent Breslin and Sian Breslin, co-founders,

A mother-and-son team is our featured tech start-up this week. The duo, who hail from Donegal, have managed to fuse their cookery and technological expertise to create, a new web application to help people plan and create healthy meals on a budget. As well as the well-being focus, the app is also about helping its users cut down on food wastage.

Vincent Breslin and his mum Sian are the brains behind Sian runs Donegal Manor Guesthouse and Cookery School, while Vincent – who lives in London – is an engineer and has also just obtained an MSc in sustainable energy.

It was three years ago that the duo decided to fuse their skill sets to come up with an app around online meal planning.

“We’ve gone through a number of iterations over the past three years. Mum is a trained home economist and runs a cookery school in Donegal Town,” explains Vincent. He says that when the recession hit her students at the cookery school started to veer away from “cheffy” meals and began asking his mum for advice about creating healthy meals on a budget.

“A lot of the students at the school associated healthy ingredients with being expensive but they were throwing away a third of their shopping every week as food waste.”

He says his mum decided to create ‘meal plan in colour’, a system to help people conjure up healthy meals at home, ie, for their families, at a budget.

“I recognised from an early stage the huge potential that a consumer-focused online meal planning application has, so we began developing our database and building an application. We’ve been in our current guise for the past year.”

As for Vincent’s background, he is an engineer and moved to London four years ago to study for his MSc.

“Energy is something that I am really passionate about so being able to help people reduce their food waste and save money at the same time is rewarding,” he says.

meal plan

The app uses colour coding to plan meals

Breslin says there are meal planners out there, but he claims most have been created by developers who don’t have the consumer as their main focus.

“We’re focused on sustainability and I believe that there must be a reward for people to change their behaviour.” He says research from the EPA in Ireland and WRAP in the UK points to how people can save around €1,000 each year by cutting down on food waste.

Entrepreneurial eye

And entrepreneurship appears to have always been on Breslin’s mind.

“I’ve been programming since I was about 13 and won an Enterprise Ireland Young Entrepreneur of the Year award at around that age, as well, for a tourist-based business I set up called Treasure Ireland.”

So, it was this first foray into the business world at such a young age that appears to have swayed Breslin towards wanting to run his own business.

“A technology business is such an exciting thing to be a part of, seeing your ideas turned into reality and being used by others to make their lives easier. Just like engineering but at a more tangible scale!”

Core team

As for, the business has a core team of five.

“We have about 10 people that we call on every now and again for their expertise and advice. Most of us are based in London and we’re tapping into a talent pool of mainly young Irish professionals who are excelling in their own fields, including around marketing, financials, PR, advertising and communications.

“We’re blessed with passionate young people who are full of fresh ideas. I run the company acting as CEO and CTO, with mum as the brand ambassador and voice of our members. We liaise via Skype, etc.”

Gamification of health

So what is the app all about?

We make it easier for home cooks to provide healthy meals for their families. We’re into the gamification of health for the benefits of mums, dads and children. Anyone can use it, though.

“Our members typically create a meal plan for the week on a Sunday, for example, so that everything is prepared for the week ahead. You know what you are cooking and have the right food in the right amount right there in the kitchen when you need it. We help people achieve what we call the 4 CORE rewards in the kitchen; controlling shopping, optimising health, reducing food waste and eliminating mealtime stress.”

He says the service has gleaned around 2,000 members at the moment and is growing 11pc month-on-month.

And Breslin says Siansplan is also looking to the back-to-school market and the aim is to bring in 52,000 free members by January of next year.

“Aside from what we already have in place, it’s the really interesting things that we can do with our database that excites me,” he says.

“We have about 7,000 ingredients, each with detailed nutritional information, and each is being linked up to online grocery stores. It’s all about displaying that available information in easy-to-understand ways.

“We hope to have agreements in place with all the major supermarkets in the UK and Ireland in the very near future.”

With the increase in online grocery shopping, he says the idea is to help people create an automated shopping list.

Talking with potential investors

Breslin says Siansplan is now at the stage where the company is discussing investment and strategic partnership opportunities, both in Ireland and the UK.

Right now, he says the team is focusing on launching in the UK.

“From a technical standpoint we are developing our API and are installing our first white label, which is very exciting. We’re looking for partners and are in discussions with many different types of business, from those that deliver ingredients for meals, to recipe websites, to cookery schools, to the odd celebrity chef. It’s really any business where food plays a role. We can work with them to improve their service, increase user retention, and automate a lot of their processes.”

As for the company’s growth curve, Breslin says Siansplan has been entirely bootstrapped, bar some grant aid from Donegal County Enterprise Board and Enterprise Ireland.

“The mentoring that we have received has come in the form of industry experts that we have contacted ourselves. For example, Senator Feargal Quinn has been very helpful to us. I also attend numerous events here in the London. The tech community is fantastic and people are always willing to help out. I’m told that the scene in Dublin is very similar.”

As for challenges setting out, Breslin says where do you start?

The old cliché ‘nobody believed our idea was any good’ definitely runs true. Deep down you know that you have a great idea, but then you’re getting told by some influential people that it’s never going to take off. You begin to doubt yourself, but you have to keep on track. More often than not someone more influential comes along and gets really excited about what you’re doing, and better still wants to help you realise your dream,” he says.

Advice from experience

And finally, Breslin’s advice for other emerging start-ups out there?

“Surround yourself with positive people and build a team from the start. Chances are you know someone that can help with some aspects of your business. You probably can’t do it all yourself.

“Don’t be afraid to give away some shares for that help, and don’t expect anything to be done for free. Contact as many people as you can, and make sure that a lot of them are on top of their game. The influential people aren’t going to get excited about you if you don’t make the first move. You’re going to make mistakes. Pick yourself up, move on and never lose focus,” he adds.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic