Tech Heritage in Ireland Spawns Internet of Things Activity
The tech industry first took root in Ireland in the 1980s, a time when the word “computer” typically meant a refrigerator-size office machine or a boxy home PC. Now Irish companies are building tools and services for a new era, in which computing is spread throughout the physical world. They’re betting that the emerging Internet of things will need new infrastructure and technology tailored to specific industries.
Although loosely defined, the Internet of things is one of the most active areas for investment and technology development. In Silicon Valley, companies are building the hardware to make everyday objects, whether it’s a toy or an oil rig, connect to the Internet wirelessly. At the same time, dozens of startups are building the software tools to write new applications for connected devices.
Irish startups are part of this trend, spanning everything from wearable health monitors to automated dairy farms. The founders of these companies draw on their experience working for global technology firms and the industries they’re seeking to modernize with automation and data.
Dublin-based Shimmer, for instance, has its roots at Intel in Ireland, where a research team developed a medical sensor platform for measuring people’s movements and physical responses to stimuli. In 2006, the company gained a license to commercialize and further develop the technology, which has been used to measure patients’ recovery after knee surgery, athletes’ performance, and consumers’ reactions to movies or video games.
Originally, the technology was used primarily for research but the company now ships its sensors and analytics software to commercial customers in 60 countries. The company’s CEO, Paddy White, has grown with the local technology industry, starting at mainframe maker Amdahl in the early 1980s before working at Intel and then starting a Dublin-based electronics manufacturing business. Shimmer also has a tech development office in Boston.
Sensors, in general, are emerging as vital technology for the Internet of things by providing the means to collect data and control machines that historically haven’t been instrumented and managed in real time. Limerick-based EpiSensor was started in 2007 to build a line of sensors for machines, such as servers in data centers and heating and cooling equipment.
By collecting data and analyzing it on cloud-based computers, EpiSensor can tell facilities managers how to save money through better energy efficiency. Like Shimmer, EpiSensor has a founder—Gary Carroll—who has spent many years in the tech industry, first working for multinationals before starting companies.
One of the reasons the Internet of things is advancing is because the cost of the technology, such as wireless networking and data acquisition hardware, has come down. And on the business side, there are a number of industries that are ripe for more automation.
That’s how Limerick-based AMCS Group got started. Its founders saw that the business of waste management, which includes collection of municipal and commercial solid waste, could benefit from mobile computing and data collection in trucks. The company developed a system that uses scanners and RFID tags, which can be placed on bins, to track the collection of waste and the movement of trucks.
“It’s all about gathering information and then using that information to make more intelligent decisions around improving [collection] yields and the efficiency of routes,” says Elaine Treacy, who heads up sales and marketing for AMCS in Ireland and the U.K. The software also allows truck drivers to, for example, take photos with mobile devices and show consumer that waste was collected to resolve disputes.
The company started out in Ireland in 2003 and benefited from European grants to test RFID readers and in-truck mobile computers. But it’s currently accelerating its expansion outside Ireland, aided by a 24.5 million euro investment earlier this year, which brought in U.S. venture firm Highland Capital Partners.
Its funding strategy reflects one of the challenges for Irish startups that need growth capital. Because the venture investment industry is relatively immature, companies often get funding from elsewhere to fuel growth, said Treacy. AMCS also secured money from Silicon Valley Bank to fuel its overseas plans.
Meanwhile, Dairymaster, which is based in the western county of Kerry, is showing that modernizing an indigenous industry—in this case, the dairy business—can lead to business outside the country.
The company manufactures high-tech dairy equipment. It’s built, for instance, a “MooMonitor,” a necklace that’s fitted onto a dairy cow’s neck to constantly monitor and quantify her activity, such as how much time she spent ruminating or resting. That information creates a portrait of an individual cow’s health and fertility and tells a farmer on a computer or mobile device the best time for milking.
The company has also developed automated feeders and a robotic milking parlor, a platform on which animals walk and are connected to milking machines, to make the process more efficient and productive. But CEO Edmond Harty says that the biggest revolution in farming comes from the explosion of data available, which can be analyzed and delivered to farmers on mobile devices.
In this business, being based in a rural part of Ireland is an asset, he says. “It’s a big opportunity for people in the area. They don’t actually have to move to the big cities. They can apply their knowledge from growing up here to make a huge difference on farms around the world,” he told the BBC in August.
Whether more Irish startups can build export businesses at the convergence of hardware and data analytics remains to be seen. But it’s clear that the digital transformation of many industries has just begun.