It was an idea that began in 2010 in the middle of a global recession, a time when Ireland was forced to seek a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Bill McKiernan, the Irish American founder of fintech Cybersource, could see how hard it was for early-stage entrepreneurs to get going.

McKiernan had just sold his business to Visa for $2 billion so he decided to start a competition called The Ireland Funds Business Plan. Over the next decade, it attracted entries from more than 300 undergraduates, postgraduate students and researchers from academic institutions and research centres across the island of Ireland who wanted to launch their own businesses. 

The competition was recently rebranded as IDEATE Ireland and attracted new sponsorship to fund its growth from PwC, Key Capital, the Guinness Enterprise Centre, Each&Other, and Irish Life.

Helen Fullen, an entrepreneur herself, who previously worked with early-stage start-ups in the NDRC, is the co-founder of IDEATE Ireland along with other well-known business people including McKiernan and David Moffitt, the chief executive of mattress maker Kayfoam.

So too are Danny Moore, the CEO of capital markets tech company Options Technology, and Cian O’Flaherty, an alumnus of the competition who founded Safecility.

“The rationale for IDEATE Ireland is simple. If we want more unicorn companies to emerge from Ireland, we need more start-ups, which means more people with scalable ideas,” Fullen explained. “IDEATE Ireland’s mission is to capture the imagination of Ireland’s brightest minds and help promising individuals and teams to make a lasting contribution to social goals, employment and the global economy.”

She said that McKiernan was still very involved in the competition but it had also brought in new supporters who believe in his original vision that “a job is the best social philanthropy anyone can provide, and every job starts with an entrepreneur.

Fullen added: “A lot has changed in Ireland since 2010. I am conscious that Ireland has received extraordinary assistance from American entrepreneurs like Bill. However, the time has come for me and like-minded individuals to step forward and support the next generation of Irish start-ups.

“IDEATE Ireland is an opportunity to write the next chapter of the business plan competition, and previous cohorts have shown us the extraordinary potential that entrepreneurs in this country have.”

“Our goal is to give first-time entrepreneurs access to knowledge, skills, tools and networks that will provide them and their ventures the very best possible start, moving them to the next stage of the start-up journey as quickly as possible,” she added.

Alumni companies of the competition have raised over €32 million since 2017 and support over 300 jobs, according to Fullen. The sponsors backing the competition are providing more than financial support. “Through IDEATE Ireland, our partners have an excellent opportunity to engage with entrepreneurs around the country who are working on innovative new ideas. They offer support throughout the competition, helping participants develop their commercial know-how and engaging them with like-minded people so their business can have a global impact,” Fullen said.

“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership as entrepreneurs can speed up their learning through exposure to the best business advice.” 

Networking plays a crucial role in the value of the competition to entrepreneurs. By building relationships, accessing resources, and increasing visibility, they can gain a competitive advantage and increase their chances of success, she said. “Everyone opens their global collective networks to connect them with potential customers, investors and organisations that can support them at the next stage of their development journey,” Fullen said.

Entering IDEATE is open to anyone in a third-level academic institution on the island of Ireland who wants to start their own business. “While only ten finalists will be selected to participate in the ten-week programme, we promise feedback and signposting to support anyone that makes an application. In 2022 there was a significant increase in the number of women applying with 50 per cent of finalists being female-led teams. We hope to see those trends continue this year.”  

To find out more: Go to the IDEATE Ireland website, There will be an online briefing event on Tuesday, 07 March 2023, at 17.00pm. 

2022 winners NeuroBell

IDEATE Ireland 2022 winners Dr Mark O’Sullivan and Dr Alison O’Shea of NeuroBell from the INFANT Research Centre in University College Cork.

NeuroBell is developing novel brain monitoring and newborn seizure detection technologies to improve outcomes for the 2 per cent of newborns globally who suffer brain injury at birth. The business was cofounded by Dr Mark O’Sullivan and Dr Alison O’Shea.

Tom Lyons (TL):  How did IDEATE help you get your business off the ground?

Mark O’Sullivan (MOS): IDEATE Ireland helped to refine and shape the business proposition for NeuroBell. Through the workshops, we developed a deeper understanding of the target audience, the clinical need, and, most importantly, how to quantify the clinical need so that a value proposition could be articulated. It was also hugely beneficial to have more than just one team member on the programme so that commercial development and milestones become a shared goal.

TL: Did its network help you think about your business differently, win sales, raise financing?

MOS: Between the mentors, the workshop speakers, the peer group, and the broader network of advisors that were made available to us during IDEATE Ireland, we were able to navigate the common pitfalls in early-stage tech start-ups and get expert advice on the steps ahead including steps to prepare for and raise investment funding.

TL: How is the business doing today?

MOS: NeuroBell is an Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund project. We are nearing the end of the fund and will close seed funding later this year. We have excellent early traction in the market, including a US hospital group that will fund and conduct a pilot study of our neonatal seizure detection device. We are on track to successfully spinout of the University and IDEATE Ireland has certainly helped get us here.