The following is an interview extract from the Knowlegde Transfer Ireland Summit, 2017. The full transcript can be read here.
"I’d just like to share my perspective and experiences, being a small business collaborating with Dublin Institute of Technology. And firstly, I have to honestly say I am continually stunned by the high level of talent and world-class expertise that’s in our colleges and universities here in Ireland.
My company, PE Services genuinely is privileged to work with DIT Hothouse and DIT Agricultural Analytics Research Group. I would just like to recognise Knowledge Transfer Ireland and Enterprise Ireland for being the catalyst for making this collaboration happen. I wanted to say that at the outset.
Killian Cawley, Managing Director, PE Services talks to Alison Campbell of Knowlede Transfer Ireland
PE Services is a small company operating along the border in County Cavan. I’m a Monaghan man, I just want to make that very clear. We employ just over 20 employees and we operate throughout Ireland and into the UK. We’re an equipment-based, solutions-providing company. And I suppose we have a number of different areas in our business, primarily agriculture, providing turnkey solutions in the pig, poultry and dairy sector and we also have a washing environmental division and we provide services, washing everything from trains and trucks to army tanks.
So there’s quite a range there and we also have a safety division and we provide safe access systems for being able to access the tops of road tankers, particularly for the food and pharma sector and of course my favourite sector, distilleries and breweries. So there’s a diverse range of products and a diverse range of customers.
This spreads the risk and I suppose, using the poultry analogy, we don’t get to keep all our eggs in one basket. In a previous life I was in the banking sector. I left the banking sector about 10 years ago and invested in the company and within a couple of months, along came the recession and I quickly realised there were more than two certainties in life; death and taxes.
There was a third, and that was uncertainty. But we wanted to put a positive slant on that and we called it change. So, over the last 10 years, we’ve become more and more accepting of change and particularly over the last while, none of us expected Brexit. None of us expected Mr. Trump. And it appears the world is continually looking for change.
We’ve learned the same, or I’ve learned the same, from my customers needs, that they’re constantly changing. Our strength as a business is our industry knowledge and our ability to adapt and change and provide customers with tailored solutions. So change is very much part of that. It became very clear very quickly, the huge importance of technology, particularly in the farming sector.
There’s been a greater dependence on automation and information and particularly in the poultry sector within Ireland and worldwide. At PE Services, we supply computer systems as well as other equipment into the poultry sector. The systems we provide control everything from ventilation, feeding and temperature to water. There are various sensors throughout the poultry unit that provide a huge amount of data into these computers and the data that are on the computers are sitting there and that data is not been used.
We’ve seen a need. We needed to translate this data and turn it into usable information for the farmer so the farmer can make real time decisions. As well as that, we also saw that there was huge competition in our day-to-day business and this was increasingly putting pressure on margins. So it is very important that the company would look towards having a competitive advantage in the future over our competitors and try and find a way that would provide better margins and develop overseas markets and develop a stronger business structure for the future.
I believe in combining things that we were good at with technology and that this would make us more resilient to economic cycles and other challenges that might come our way. Being a small company with limited resources in terms of money and skilled people, it’s impossible to embark on any product development on your own. So "think small - be small, think big - be big" was applied to our thinking. I knew that there was a huge demand for data-driven technology through various poultry experts that we would have interacted with such as the Carton Group and other international companies that we would deal with."
"As a result, we developed a 'farm of the future' concept and basically, this involved controlling and measuring all the inputs and variables into a farm with the aim of improving animal welfare, better food production and more profitability. Essentially, it’s precision farming. Initial inquiries were made. I wanted to try and find out how I could move this on.
I became aware of the Innovation in Competitive Enterprises (ICE) programme as it was known. This programme helped companies scope out new technologies and innovations relating to their businesses. It was led by Malachy Mooney and Kieran Fegan who are in the Dundalk Institute of Technology. They were excellent in helping us to scope out the need and find a potential solution to the problem we were trying to resolve.
And this kept us commercially focussed in relation to what we were looking to do. From there, we embarked the VITAL programme, a lead-on from the ICE programme and it helped match companies to new technology and new opportunities to enable growth. We completed a feasibility study which was grant funded through that particular programme in relation to the specific technology and we discovered that there was no other product available worldwide for what we were looking at doing.
So through the VITAL programme, we were very lucky that (VITAL being with Dundalk Institute of Technology) there was a network there and we were introduced to DIT Hothouse and to Kieran O’Connell. DIT Hothouse and the School of Computing are the experts in Data Analytics and I was introduced to Dr. Robert Ross and he leads the Agricultural Analytic Research Group.
To be very honest, I was very sceptical at the start that a college in Dublin city could help chicken farmers in Cavan and Monaghan. I met with Kieran and Robert with a very open mind. After the first meeting, I was very confident that they were the right academic partners. Kieran is from a farming and a business background and Robert is an expert in data analytics and I knew these two combined were very important and a good match for us because that’s where we were coming from as well."
"Kieran also won me over in terms of something that struck a chord with me at the very outset. It was his definition of innovation - turning ideas into invoices. And this is ultimately what every business needs, turning good ideas into good products and eventually into sales. At the end of the day, that’s what keeps us all going.
That’s why we exist. So we sat down, we agreed what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to go about it. And everyone had very much clarity on what was to be achieved. That was a key part of what we started to do initially. Communication and understanding of each party’s expectations and abilities and our roles and responsibilities were clearly outlined at the start.
Dr. Robert Ross completed the Innovation Partnership application for a grant funding with Enterprise Ireland, with a little bit of help for myself. I have to say, Robert took most of the burden. Enterprise Ireland grant funded what we call the Smart Chick project. This particular technology was a data analytics project. It won a Merit Award in the Enterprise Ireland Innovation Arena at The Ploughing in 2015.
We were delighted that it did that. But following this, I attended a conference in Birmingham - a poultry conference - and I discovered that a Belgian company which, from one of our previous speakers was a spinout from Leuven, had already begun to provide a technology very similar to our Smart Chick technology. So it was something that I was disappointed about obviously but I met with Kieran and Robert in DIT and we all agreed that the technology that we would look at needed to be a unique technology and we reconsidered our position, or as as Jeff said earlier on, and I don’t like using trendy words, but we 'pivoted'.
Robert proposed a visualisation technology and it was a 24 hour, artificial intelligence monitoring system. It was ideal for our sector, for the agricultural sector and it provided significant benefits to farmers, to their animals and the industry worldwide so we were looking well beyond the Irish side of things, well beyond Europe and further afield.
In fact again, going back to what I said at the start, DIT and Robert Ross are at the forefront of this deep learning technology worldwide. And again, it’s an indication of the expertise that is present in our third level institutions. For somebody that’s coming from a business perspective and looking in, it’s really staggering to see what is going on behind behind our college doors.
Flock Guard was born, which is the technology we are working with at the moment. We submitted a Change of Project to Enterprise Ireland and after a few weeks, we got approval to proceed. Today, thankfully, the project is very well advanced and it’s near commercialisation. We have a test farm in County Monaghan thanks to the Carton Group, the large poultry processor in Shercock, County Cavan.
And in fact, DIT are actually on farm today with some of the PE Services staff. The interaction between DIT and ourselves has been genuinely very, very strong. So I suppose the key to this is the link with DIT Hothouse and Kieran O’Connell. I see that as creating a bridge between the business and academic experts, that’s very important.
There is open communication, clear goals and milestones are essential along the whole way. Hothouse has helped my company in all the licensing, the grant applications and any technical issues that have arisen during this particular journey. Our technology was a finalist again in the Innovation Arena in The Ploughing last year and it is gaining interest internationally.
It’s great to see that the interaction that we’re having with the college and the work that we’re doing in the business is gaining good traction, both in Ireland and further afield. We’re even talking to our Smart Chick competitor in Belgium and I have a conference call with him in the morning. It’s amazing how these things work.
This is all taking place again, I suppose why we’re here today, with the help of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, with Enterprise Ireland, with DIT Hothouse and DIT Agricultural Analytics Research Group. So, in summary, and I think I’ve gone on too long here so I’m very sorry, I believe using technology and the expertise within our third level institutions will help overcome some of the challenges that we all face such as Brexit and help us even to look beyond the UK.
And I think that’s very important, particularly being in a company and on the border. In PE Services' case, I’ve learned, you’re never too small to innovate. Also, embrace change, don’t fear it. And finally, very importantly, be clear on what you want to achieve commercially, keep focussed on this and keep watching the market and your competitors. It’s very important.
Ensure good, open communication and keep a very close relationship with your academic partner. And as I’ve already said, in my experience, the key to this is the commercial interface and that will lead to the success of it. So finally again, I’d just like to thank Knowledge Transfer Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Robert and Kieran O’Connell and DIT for all their help all along."