TSSG Uncovered: Irish Research Centres Rule

In the first of a series on Ireland’s research centres and their role in the Irish startup ecosystem, we profile TSSG (Telecommunications, Software and Systems Group) and speak to CEO Barry Downes, founder of FeedHenry, along with three of TSSG’s Spin Outs.

Irish startup FeedHenry made news recently, with its sale for an impressive €63 million to US firm Red Hat. With branches in England, America and Dublin, the mobile app development platform has become a global player. FeedHenry is a ‘Spin Out’ originating at TSSG, the research centre based at Waterford Institute of Technology; founded in 1996, TSSG focuses on telecommunications software and applied research, and is 100% self-funded through EU research contracts and R&D work with EI startups

Over the years the research centre has grown from a handful of employees to a staff of 143, working with IBM, Cisco, Science Foundation Ireland and entrepreneurs like Dragons Den’s Barry O’Sullivan (O’Sullivan’s ‘predictive communications’ startup Altocloud began with R&D at TSSG). They also conduct R&D for smaller companies through Enterprise Ireland’s Innovation Partnership programme which sees EI cover up to 80% of the cost.

“The core of it all is leveraging science and technology to have an impact, and that impact is measured in jobs,” says Barry Downes, founder of FeedHenry and CEO of TSSG. “We run a PhD programme, and the graduates go into other programmes both locally and nationally. We have a pretty open ecosystem: we see ourselves as a catalyst. A lot of traditional companies would try to hold on to all their graduates, but we try to encourage our staff to go and join startups regionally and nationally.” Graduates leave, start companies, return and leave again to rejoin the Irish startup ecosystem, with TSSG positioned at its centre. “We have the skills in-house to solve problems end-to-end,” Downes explains. “We can put together a team for their whole innovation life cycle. A typical research project will last from 12 to 18 months. These tend to be large budget R&D programmes, anything from 100k to 500k.”

And then there are TSSG’s ‘Spin Outs’, companies formed from ideas generated within the research centre before being judged worth developing in their own right. We spoke to the founders of three of these companies, each in different stages of development, about their startups and the research behind them.

Eric Robson, Research Units manager at TSSG and CEO of Wizeoni:

So tell us about Wizeoni
Wizeoni is a personal data protection privacy service for IOT devices. If you buy a device, say something in domestic healthcare – a digital thermometer or a fertility tracker, for example – that device can collect sensitive information about you. What happens to that data? It can’t stay on the device, because in order to work it needs a cloud-based system. But as soon as you send your data into the cloud, what happens? How do you know where it goes, or who’s accessing it?

What Wizeoni provides is a ‘cloudlet’, or a personal data cloud, a personal space where your data can be stored. We put an emphasis on permissions – Wizeoni allows the service to access your data, as agreed in terms of service, but you need to actively consent to it accessing your data every time, and again if the service wants to use or sell your data.

Is the product already being implemented?
Yes, we’re just finishing up a €2.6 million research project called Open Eye. We’re building a technological platform and commercialising it through TSSG. We’re at that inception point where Wizeoni is only just leaving TSSG as a research project and being launched as a company.

How did the idea first come about? Was it in response to a specific problem?
As part of work at TSSG, we’re constantly engaging with people across Europe, and we constantly hear the needs they express. New regulations are coming down from the European commission and being transferred into Irish legislation, and we saw some opportunities there. Wizeoni was created in response to different conversations we’ve had over the last few years within the industry. We’re still refining it, now, to different people’s needs.

Kevin Doolin, COO at TSSG and founder of Fuseami:

So you’re Chief Operations Officer of TSSG and you’re working on Fuseami. Have you always been involved with Spin Outs, as well as the running of TSSG?
They’re a key part of TSSG, and we’ve always aimed to do as many as possible. Personally I’ve mostly worked on our EU research programme, as director of the programme, with a particular focus on Horizon 2020 projects across multiple sectors. It’s a 72 billion fund – we put in a competitive bid to win funding every six months or so. It’s a core part of our business to write proposals and see if there’s any intellectual property we can turn into businesses.

What stage is Fuseami at?
The whole point of the project was to see how you could form dynamic communities of people through social media. We worked with the European Commission’s disaster management committee in Cyprus on it: they do training exercises there so we went and built the platform around them. The idea was to create an impromptu private social network – law enforcement and emergency services could plug right into it. We brought the idea to a conference in Lithuania, where when you walked in an app would read your social data and work out who you should meet, what you should see, and create an instant agenda for you. At the end of that we applied to Enterprise Ireland and won funding in November 2013, then built the product, Fuseami.

Are you currently trialling the service?
We founded the company last September and then we started trialling the product in April. We’ve done eleven events so far, and we’ve another sixteen in the pipeline across thirteen countries and three continents. It’s really taken off.

Immersive Virtual Reality Education stands out as the Spin Out that’s least obviously ‘about’ telecommunications…
I’ve been editing a website called Virtual Reality Reviewer for a couple of years, and I was one of the original backers on Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift headset. I really wanted to become a developer and make something in virtual reality, so six months ago we started developing the Apollo 11 mission in virtual reality as an educational experience, and building a platform which an educator can log onto and have students sit down in the same virtual environment, like with massive online courses only in VR.

What kind of people are working on the VR experiences?
There’s game developers, Unity developers, modellers, animators, sculpting… the same kind of people you meet making a movie are the people you need to make a game.

After creating the VR Apollo 11 mission, what’s next?
There’ll be a project about the space programme in general, with lectures about space and physics and gravity and more. And then next year we’ll have a mission to mars, drawing on the latest research. We’re going to rebuild mars in virtual reality exactly as it looks from photographs taken by the Curiosity mission. Every year we plan to release a new space mission. And TSSG is building a virtual reality lab, which we’re going to be part of.

Immersive Virtual Reality Education stands out as the Spin Out that’s least obviously ‘about’ telecommunications…
I’ve been editing a website called Virtual Reality Reviewer for a couple of years, and I was one of the original backers on Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift headset. I really wanted to become a developer and make something in virtual reality, so six months ago we started developing the Apollo 11 mission in virtual reality as an educational experience, and building a platform which an educator can log onto and have students sit down in the same virtual environment, like with massive online courses only in VR.

What kind of people are working on the VR experiences?
There’s game developers, Unity developers, modellers, animators, sculpting… the same kind of people you meet making a movie are the people you need to make a game.

After creating the VR Apollo 11 mission, what’s next?
There’ll be a project about the space programme in general, with lectures about space and physics and gravity and more. And then next year we’ll have a mission to mars, drawing on the latest research. We’re going to rebuild mars in virtual reality exactly as it looks from photographs taken by the Curiosity mission. Every year we plan to release a new space mission. And TSSG is building a virtual reality lab, which we’re going to be part of.

Written by Roisin Kiberd and published by Dublin Globe, July 7th 2015