startlab: A Bank-Funded Incubator in the Heart of Galway


In a corner of Eyre Square in the heart of Galway City is the Bank of Ireland’s startlab. This is a tech startup incubator whose stated aim is to educate, connect and scale. It doesn’t take equity nor does it fund startups.

Tracy Keogh is the Program Manager and runs the incubator day to day. She is responsible for bringing in the coaches and mentors and working with the teams afterwards.

She brought the first bank-run incubator to Galway with the idea that, “In a formalised, structured way we could do something great.”

Interest was immense and it took, “Two hundred meetings to get down to the eight companies that are there. But my personal milestone achievement for this was that two of the companies came from Dublin and one came from Limerick. We are starting to attract in good talent; bringing more people in, more knowledge, different perspectives.

“For the first cohort… We needed people who had some level of funding beforehand. We wanted to see some level of traction, some cash behind them and a good team.”

She emphasises that, “For us a team that is coachable is very important. When somebody takes their day out to spend time here and gives their valuable knowledge to the teams it is really important that the teams are able to take on board the information and feedback that’s been given.”

For Tracy an entrepreneur is someone who is, “Prepared to take on all the risks and runs up against brick walls constantly.” And, “Being able to bring on board employees one and two and lead them on that journey so that they can actually create something.”

Tracy was originally destined for corporate life but yearned to do something on her own.

“I was actually at a roundabout. There were two cars either side of me. One was a Mercedes. One was a clapped-out little Nissan. The man on the right-hand side in the Mercedes was on the phone and you could see him pulling down his face and he looked so stressed. And the guy in the Nissan was bopping away to some music. I thought what sort of life would I like?”

She opted for the Nissan.

“I loved working in a startup, I loved being a jack of all trades… You were always learning. Conversations were always about new things. You were just fulfilling your curiosity all the time. I felt if you were doing that you could never really go wrong.”

As for the teams currently working at startlab. “We’re very excited to have them here. We want to be part of their journey. We want to see what they do over the next six months. To help them as they are zig-zagging along the route to greatness is, frankly for me, thrilling.

“My goal would be that they would come out of here after six months with all of the networks — all those coaches and mentors still onside — and they move into the PorterShed, then grow and expand and then IPO.”

Eventually Tracy wants to start her own company but is not in a rush, “I used to have a fear that I would run out of ideas but I don’t anymore because they keep coming.”

Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway – A One Stop Shop for Ideas

The recently opened Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway offers students, postgrads, alumni and staff the opportunity to feel out, test and nurture their fledgling startup ideas. They also have the opportunity to see if the life of an entrepreneur might be a possible or worthwhile career path to follow.

To help them with their questions and to provide support in determining the feasibility of ideas and creating a pathway of development is Executive Director, Mary Carty and Program Manager, Natalie Walsh.

LaunchPad is centrally located on the Concourse at the heart of the NUI Galway. No matter what background the students have or what degree they are pursuing, they can come to LaunchPad discuss their ideas.

Mary says that, “If they have an idea or they want to pitch something or present something, they want to build out some skills or they are just curious, they can just come in and talk to us and we’ll help them to figure out what’s next in their journey.”

Mary is herself an experienced entrepreneur having been CEO of Spoiltchild, an award winning design and development agency, and co-founder of Toddle, an email marketing system for small businesses. Prior to LaunchPad she co-founded Outbox, an incubator for young women with tech ideas.

“I pretty well understand how you start something, how you develop something, how you grow something.”

The number one question she hears is, “Is my idea a good idea?” To which the answer is, “We have to figure that out. This is the first stage of the conversation. Let’s figure out if this ideas has legs and what are you going to do next.

“We use the lean business model. That’s very good as it focuses very much on the problem that you want to solve. It focuses on the customer end – what the pain is and how you are going to help the customer solve that problem. It is a very interesting flip of the mind for a lot of people.”

LaunchPad is funded by the Blackstone Foundation in partnership with the Galway University Foundation.

Blackstone LaunchPad already works with over 500,000 students across the United States. In Galway, over six hundred students signed up for the program in the first month.

The space itself is mainly fitted out with benches and bare tables – no computers. “We wanted this space to be very collaborative and open so students could come in and talk about their ideas and work on their canvas. We have a well-used blackboard and people can become as hands on and as creative as they want.”

“We are signing up people from across the colleges. So that’s arts, humanities, social science, medicine; then, obviously, science and business as well.”

Mary says that LaunchPad is, “A one stop shop for ideas. Our aim is to help you to get you to the next point from where you are at with your idea.”

It is expected that some users will go on to other incubators and accelerators while others may go through the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) at NUI Galway.

“The pipeline is there and there are pathways that people can follow and we can help people to figure out where to go next.

“We have StartLab. PorterShed is going to come online. BioInnovate is here. The TTO office is here. No matter where you are at in your career or in your evolution as a startup there’s a place for you to go.”

Video Review of the BMW i3 Electric Car

You can read more about John Breslin’s experiences of using an electric car on a daily basis at the Technology Voice website:

The Six Questions I’ve Been Most Frequently Asked About ecars and the BMW i3 http://tch.vc/1DtJrzh

From the 19th Century Electric Car to an Internet of Electric Vehicles http://tch.vc/1xPy6GC

The main video was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s in and around Galway City, Ireland.

John Breslin is a senior lecturer and researcher at NUI Galway, and co-founder of boards.ie, Ireland’s largest online community. @johnbreslin

To EXPLORE staff-student collaborations, to seek out new ideas and new innovations

How does a university promote collaborations between students and staff to stimulate innovation? In a joint effort between the Vice President for Innovation and Performance at NUI Galway and the NUI Galway Students’ Union, the EXPLORE Innovation Initiative at NUI Galway has funded 38 student-staff projects since it began in January 2012. The projects each receive €1000 of funding from the initiative to deliver innovation that will benefit the university or the wider community in the area. Some of these projects include creating a locator app for cardiac defibrillators (AEDs) in the west of Ireland, building bilingual video-based teaching aids for school students, running a regular student-entrepreneur technology meetup in Galway City, and many more.

“There are just under 20,000 staff and students at NUI Galway and students account for 86% of this figure”, says Prof. Chris Curtin, Vice President for Innovation and Performance. “We know that students at all stages of their studies, together with the know-how of staff, can create an innovative culture on campus.

“NUI Galway and the Students’ Union have joined forces to introduce a new model for students and staff to work together to bring about positive and transformative change at the university.”

So what has been the actual impact of EXPLORE? In terms of staff-student involvement, over 215 staff and students have participated in creating and running the projects. As regards impact on the community, the numbers are in their thousands, directly or indirectly.

For example, the Cell Explorers project – run by Dr. Muriel Grenon and nearly 20 student partners at NUI Galway – had 200 children and parents taking part in their show at the Galway Science and Technology Festival, and also had 500 primary school children plus their teachers and parents participating in their biological and biomedical outreach programme.

The Exponential series of tech entrepreneur talks (previously covered on Technology Voice) has given over 300 participants the opportunity to learn from six of Ireland’s top technology leaders in a casual setting. The Video Lab YouTube channel of easy-to-follow chemistry lab demonstrations has had over 2,500 views since it launched in February 2012.

“EXPLORE breaks down traditional hierarchies in the university environment that can stand in the way of innovation and treats the entire campus population as active innovators”, according to Paul Curley, the President of NUI Galway Students’ Union. “We are seeing that when students and staff combine their wealth of expertise in new ways it can have very powerful results.

“EXPLORE’s far-reaching contribution to not only campus life, but also to the wider community, is to be applauded.”

The project areas for EXPLORE projects are wide ranging, including technology, science outreach, the arts, environment, health, employability and mentoring, teaching and learning, and skills development.

“Staff and students are equally enthusiastic about their involvement in EXPLORE”, says Amber Walsh Olesen, EXPLORE coordinator. “Student participants have developed valuable transferable skills within the areas of teamwork, leadership, project management and communication capabilities, and have bolstered their CVs with hands-on experience. In fact, some students have already secured jobs and summer internships as a result of their EXPLORE projects.

“Staff see EXPLORE as a way to pilot new ideas in a low-risk environment, to collaborate with undergraduate students, and obtain new skills, particularly within the area of digital media.”

A current EXPLORE project aims to build a high-performance computing cluster from used laptops. According to student partner Finn Krewer, “Supercomputers are big, expensive and need a lot of electricity. With this project we aim to acquire used laptops from students who are upgrading their laptops. We will then connect between 10 and 30 laptops together to form a small low energy computing cluster.”

EXPLORE is a first for Irish universities and has been inspired by similar efforts abroad. The goal is to establish a permanent fund for this initiative beyond 2013. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

Starolas: The All-in-One Web Application for Academic Conferences

Academic conferences allow researchers and academics to present, discuss and showcase their work. The conference chairperson generally organises the entire event from the paper submission stage, months in advance of the conference, right up to the event itself.

Galway-based company, Starlight, plans to simplify the organisation process for the chairperson through its conference management application, Starolas.

Starlight is a creative lab space of six people that focuses on the creation of web apps. Its diverse portfolio also includes website design and animation.

The name for Starlight’s app, “Starolas”, combines the “Star” from Starlight and “Eolas,” the Irish word for knowledge.

The app is designed to be used for approximately nine months leading up to an academic conference. It contains four key modules:

  • Paper submission and review
  • Online payment and registration
  • Website
  • Delegate management

The final module above allows a conference presenter to upload his or her presentation and biography to the conference website in advance of arrival. The delegate management module will also download the presentation files to the presentation computer to negate the need for the speaker to bring it on a USB key.

Founder and Managing Director of Starlight, Paul Killoran says, “Academics are focused on research. They don’t necessarily want to organise a conference. At the end of the day, their key is that the conference goes well, generates a lot of papers, research and presentations. My objective is to create a piece of software that is robust and will provide that infrastructure. It will make them look really good and in doing that, take away all the pain of how to coordinate the conference.”

In terms of the current web apps available for an academic conference chairperson, Paul explains, “some of the competitors only do about 25% of what we do. For example Eventbrite
and EventElephant do online payment and registration. But we’ve tried to make it a one-stop shop for everything you would need to run your academic conference. We would hope that within five years this product could be the de facto standard for how to run a conference.”

Starlight is also considering adding a social networking tool to the app. Paul explains, “These conferences are not just about publishing papers. They’re probably more about meeting up with your peers from all over the world in the same subject area and then networking with them. What would be nice is an opportunity for you, before you get there, to see all the submissions or the presentations that are going to go on and to see a list of who will present those in a social way, almost like a Facebook.”

In addition, Starlight also hopes to include a feature that will allow the abstract book for delegates attending the conference to be complied through Starolas. The app will gather the individual submissions into one document that can be produced easily by the conference chairperson.

The idea for Starolas first originated from an Institution of Engineering and Technology conference held in NUI Galway in 2008. Starlight was approached by a lecturer to design software for the event. Paul remembers, “I said to him I can write that in a week. Six months later I finished writing it and it broke me. If I had a house I would have lost it. But we had built this amazing app.”

After the event, Starlight was approached by other conferences to use the app. Paul says, “After four or five conferences I thought: we have something here and we should make it in such a way that we can deploy it really really fast.”

Starolas has already been sold to twenty conferences. Paul notes, “We’ve never lost a conference. The first year we did two conferences, the second year we did seven. Then the recession hit so we maintained our seven and we’re hitting seven again.”

Starlight is most proud of having powered the 2009 symposium on Applied Reconfigurable Computing (ARC) in Germany as it was the first European sale of Starolas. Amongst others, it currently powers ARC 2011 in Queen’s University, Belfast and the Western Vascular Institute Symposium.

Paul recalls one particular moment where he realised the potential of Starolas. “I was sitting in Germany at ARC 2009. We had servers which were located in Galway. So I’m sitting there and there’s a guy in front of me with his Mac open and he’s working on his PowerPoint. There’s a presentation going on at the same time. He finishes the PowerPoint, closes it, saves it and goes to the website and uploads it. The presentation in front finishes and he walks down the stairs, clicks on the link and presents. His presentation had gone from Germany to Galway and back to Germany.”

The funding for the app was acquired from the Galway Enterprise Board with match funding from the bank.

Paul advises other budding designers seeking funding that “the best thing you can do is just be completely honest with yourself. There’s no point going in with a business plan trying to sell the bank manager on if you don’t believe in it yourself. To get the funding, we put together a very clear business plan, we showed a product that clearly worked, that was sold twenty times, that had generated x amount of revenue in 2 years and were able to demonstrate that this product would work.”

Starlight aims to have Starolas at alpha (the first phase to begin software testing) or approaching beta (the next phase generally when the software has all its final functionality) by May with a view to showcasing it at upcoming conferences in June.

Cisco Quad: A Social Network for the Business Enterprise

Quad is Cisco’s enterprise collaboration platform. It is a system where the social tools that are widely used in Facebook and Twitter and other social networks such as; newsfeeds, groups, relationships with friends and followers, contacts and the ability to be able to see activities that other people in our social network are doing, have been adapted to meet the demands of the business world. The emphasis here, however, is more on enterprise than social network.

The social networking capability that we are used to having with Facebook or Twitter has been enabled for integration with the enterprise systems that nearly all businesses have, and which already deal with the demands of CRM systems, document management and numerous other tasks.

Cisco developed Quad because they found that there was a need to provide integration between social networking and the requirement to maintain commercial security and fulfill various legal compliances. It was time to bring social media into the grown-up world. Quad transforms the idea of social network systems from being a fun tool to stay in touch with family and friends to a cutting edge business tool to aid communication and productivity.

Keith Griffin, Lead Architect of the Enterprise Collaboration Platform at Cisco, is based in Galway, Ireland. The Cisco site there is heavily involved in the field of unified communications: the combining of video, audio, instant messaging, online meetings and other collaborative solutions. Using their knowledge and experience, the team in Galway were able to make a large contribution to the work being done on the core development of Quad taking place in San Jose, California.

As Keith explains, “What we are doing here is adding horizontal social interconnectivity to a vertical directory structure. You can see in my profile (pictured above and below) that I have got directory information here. You can see my latest microblog about a research meeting that took place the night before last and my recent blogs and tags which I share with everyone else. If people want to go to this page, they can see all this. It is not just a static web page. It’s a full Web 2.0 environment.

“In the directory, I can see the reporting line. You can see all the people I am following in the directory. If I hover over anybody on the list here, I can see for example that so and so is not following, but this person is. That’s the difference between the ‘following’ model and the ‘friend’ model. If both people follow each other they are friends.

“When we did this integration (at one point there was in excess of a hundred thousand people participating,) the social activity was immense. As soon as people could see where they were in the directory and where they related to other people, they started sending friend requests and following requests.

“It just showed to me that vertical integration remains the backbone of the organisation, but it’s of limited value without this horizontal social activity because that represents the interactions that people do in real life, and in the virtual teams they work with, and so on.”

As it was felt that people have a little more to say in the business world, Quad uses 400 characters in its microposts. There is also the ability to have a ‘watch list’ where a separate filter of the main feed’s social activities can be displayed. This can allow the watch list to be used as a de facto to-do list. It gives the user the ability to respond to the news, requests and information that is most pertinent and relevant to them.

How easy does Quad make it to access the vast and varied amount of resources and expertise that a company like Cisco has?

“A big trend that we borrowed from the Web is the concept of social relevance. If I am an expert on something and I offer an opinion or write a blog, that tends to be given a pretty heavy weighting. If someone offers an opinion and perhaps they don’t have a background in a certain area, then it tends to stay as an opinion with a lesser weighting.

“In a social network, because you get to see all the activities, you can see who is active in any particular area. Over time, if people aren’t getting the answers that they expect from somebody who has been represented with having those skills, then in a system like this you would see less social activity associated with those topics for those people. So their relevance and ranking overall can drop.

How is Quad modeled?

“What we have done here is modeled our entire system on people, communities and information. Those are the three dimensions of the system.

“If I search for something like the Semantic Web, which is something we research quite deeply with the people at DERI, it will bring us back a three-dimensional search result. We’re not doing anything special with search, but what we are doing is interpreting the results in the context of social network rather than in the context of a keyword search on a number of documents.

“What it is about is providing a richness of information in any given search.”

A natural by product of social activity is the creation of communities. How are they handled?

“When people have a certain interest and that’s an ongoing interest, whether it is a project or it could be a sales campaign or a feature that they are working on, they can set up a community. The community can have a number of owners and contributors. We can have wikis and other Web 2.0 tools of the sort which you would expect, as everything running here is completely within a browser environment.

“Just like on the Web, crowdsourcing in an enterprise is significant as well. It is not just based on the hierarchy of our team. Anybody can come in and contribute their ideas. We use the crowd within our own organisation to get things done.”

While Cisco and companies like Cisco have been using instant messaging technology in preference to emails and telephone conversations for a number of years, particularly in the areas of engineering and software development, there is a major benefit to be had in harnessing one of the real powers of social media – persistence.

Persistence means that a message is kept alive and relevant because it can be seen in the context of its usefulness and relevance by the people engaged with that conversation. Important ideas don’t get lost in emails or are forgotten to be passed on after isolated conversations on telephones.

As it is easier to see the relationship between different messages and their place in the context of activity, it makes it easier to obtain a better perspective on what has already happened, and as a consequence be more appropriately placed to make better decisions about what to do next.

How does Quad help with the issue of time zones in a company as large as Cisco?

“I work an awful lot with San Jose and I am not sure if I could get through my day without Quad. As soon as I come in, I get a snapshot of all my colleagues and all the projects and technologies they are working on.

“It’s not as good as the coffee machine conversation, but I can get a sense of what is going on. The alternative is reading lots and lots of individual emails which doesn’t give me the same context or the same conversational view.”

A tool or a piece of software will only go so far. There has to be a desire for a company to collaborate and want to work together. There is an organisational and business process that needs to happen with this technology as well. Software, as ever, is just a facilitator. It is just something to make things happen. But perhaps when people look at the powerful possibilities that technologies like Quad can offer, it can inspire them to drive the sort of changes needed to enable organisations to work more collaboratively and, hopefully, make things better for everyone.

Virtual 3D Galway


Click on any of the images to view amazing flyby of Galway City, Ireland.

Three years, two thousand person hours and fifteen thousand high resolution photographs later, Galway City has been rendered into a photo-realistic, wholly-accurate, three-dimensional model. Virtual 3D Galway is an immersive model in which you fly through the City, approach it from any angle and examine it from any perspective.

Gavin Duffy, Technical Director of Realsim, a Galway-based realtime 3D simulation company, began this epic project as a proof of concept. He says, “It is as far as I am aware the most detailed model of any city in Ireland. Because we have spent a lot of time and effort photographing from the ground with high resolution photography, very few of our buildings have people or lamp posts in them. So, we don’t suffer that Google Street View clutter. It’s clean, it’s high resolution, it’s geo-spatially accurate, we think it is as good as anything you’ll find anywhere in the world in terms of a 3D model.”

Realsim’s primary focus is in planning and development. Gavin explains, “Our bread and butter business has been supplying large organisations with realtime 3D models of their own property. Our first major customer was here in NUI Galway. The Buildings Office have a 3D model of the entire campus. They fly around themselves when they are talking to engineers or architectural consultants.

“When they are discussing the ever-changing parking plans, they can fly down to an area and say this is what we need to do here. The feedback has been that it is much more effective than looking at one of those white CAD plans. People know immediately what they are talking about.”

Stepping away from using traditional 3D architectural modelers who don’t normally take into account polygon and data volume, Gavin hired in as Chief 3D Graphic Designer, Eoghan Quigley, an experienced gaming programmer. The volume of vector information and the resolution of imagery that are in a given scene is very important. Even as powerful as modern laptop computers are, it is important to optimise data volumes, and there is a skill in getting the right balance between detail and data volume.

As Gavin points out, this has led to other interesting possible uses for the technology behind Virtual 3D Galway, “An interesting potential avenue [for us] is that because the model is game ready, it can then be applied to real-world games. If someone wanted to develop a game for Galway, it could be very beneficial as a promotional tool for Galway itself. We’re not a gaming company, but we can supply a gaming company with a ready-to-go real city environment on which they can develop a game.”

At the beginning of the project, Galway was mapped by a series of aerial photographs – the raw material of the 3D environment. They provide the base map and it’s also the most efficient way to extract three dimensional shapes for the actual buildings.

But what makes Virtual 3D Galway so special is the time and effort spent walking down every street and alley over an area of three square kilometres containing over six thousand buildings, and even doing that was not as straightforward as it may seem.

Gavin explains, “It’s not just a matter of going out and photographing willy-nilly. The factors you’ve got to take into consideration are [things like] sunlight. Sometimes when sunlight is illuminating a building it can add a nice 3D effect, but if it’s completely in the shadow it is better to come back again on a cloudy day. You’re not going to get good photography in Shop Street (Galway’s main pedestrian thoroughfare) on a Friday evening. Nor are you going to get good photography first thing in the morning when all the delivery trucks are there. Particularly for city centre areas you have got to time exactly when you photograph. There were a lot of Sunday mornings [spent taking pictures] but at the same time you don’t want to photograph shops with the shutters down.

“The very process of acquiring the photographs and getting the optimal times in terms of lighting, lack of people, cars, vehicles, was a challenge in itself, but we were willing to put the the time and effort in to get the very best photography for the model.”

Data currency (the recency and relevancy of data) was, is and will always be a major challenge. Urban environments are in a constant state of flux. Old shops close, new shops open. Warehouses are torn down and cinemas built and so on. Sometimes an old map can be worse than no map.

“Building facades change quite regularly in Galway and we’ve ended up photographing the same facade several times just to keep the model up to date… That will be an ongoing challenge: one of the reasons why I think in the long term other cities in the world will probably have to localise the development and maintenance of their [own virtual] cities. [In order] to maintain an up-to-date city model, a local company will need to manage it.

“For example, Google have covered the UK and Ireland but when are they going to come back? The aerial photography for Galway is well out of date. You don’t see Webworks, and you don’t see the TK Maxx building because they were all construction sites then.”

So as environments and technologies change, the need for new skill-sets and outlooks emerge. New opportunities emerge. But Virtual 3D Galway is more than a backdrop to a game or a functional engineering tool. It is a view of ourselves and where we live reflected back at us in an unerringly accurate manner that we have never witnessed before. The true value of Virtual 3D Galway is in what it can tell us about how we live now and perhaps inform us in some way of how we can live better in the future.

Gavin says, “In the absence of knowledge and proper information, fear and distrust build. [Virtual 3D Galway] allows people to see objectively the true shape of things to come.

“Part of the problem that society has had in terms of imagining a way forward is that people have not been able to communicate their vision. If you can create that vision in a virtual environment, it then becomes a very, very powerful means to promote it and even let people in a virtual way to experience it. I think virtual worlds will have a powerful way in helping people to create a really good and powerful vision for the way we should go forward using virtual world technology.”