University Bridge Fund

In your Own Words... Dr. Andrew Phillips, "AB Power"

Advances in fuel cell technology represent a major step forward in clean energy storage, reducing carbon dioxide emissions which is a leading contributor to global warming.  Dr. Andrew Phillips, Assistant Professor at the UCD School of Chemistry is a world recognised researcher in this field and is leading a Proof of Principle project to take a patented technology from the laboratory to commercial product.

The project team also includes Dr. Aisling Ní Annaidh, Assistant Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and Business Partner Michael Murray.

We caught up with Dr Andrew Phillips to talk about his experience securing Proof of Principle investment.

Talk us through your experience in attracting funding and the impact of Atlantic Bridge Proof of Principle investment?

The University Bridge Fund has had a tremendous impact. The funding has allowed us to hire a master student with significant engineering expertise and a postdoctoral fellow with prior experience from the School of Chemistry. The combination of these two disciplines has been key to the further development of the prototype reactor, and we are about to launch our first prototype reactor for generating pure hydrogen gas under safe conditions. This research originated as part of an SFI funded energy research group, and since then, we have progressed through some State-funded programs including SFI, TIDA and Enterprise Ireland. 

The investment from Atlantic Bridge has enabled us to assemble a team to translate chemical concepts into practical technology and focus more on our commercialisation roadmap. Securing Proof of Principle funding from Atlantic Bridge was a real pinnacle point for us as it allowed us to put a prototype in front of potential investors, which was impactful, especially for attracting funding. It has also allowed us to incorporate into the team, a business partner who has been critical for moving the project forward.

Hugh Hayden, Technology Transfer Case Manager at NovaUCD was instrumental in forging the connection between Atlantic Bridge and guiding us as we developed our investment pitches. Helping us plan the story we needed to tell and the aspects of the developed technology we needed to discuss with potential investors.  Access to investment by Atlantic Bridge has been a huge advantage for us, but in addition to this, the access to their well-established network and expertise that comes with their financial support has been phenomenal. Obtaining strong commercial and practical market feedback on a regular basis, particularly on how to position our technology in different markets has been invaluable and advice that we would not have otherwise received. Chris [Horn’s] extensive experience taking academic ideas to market will be instrumental when we go to raise our seed funding in 2018. It is a comfort knowing that we have the guidance and expertise of someone who has been on this journey before and understood the challenges that may arise along the way.

Andrew noted the importance of having the right team at such an early stage in the technology development was crucial and that identifying the key skill sets when transferring from academia to a start-up ecosystem, as the importance of marketing and business development is greatly underestimated by many academics.

We have a strong team in both the engineering and chemistry sides of the business. Our chemist is a perfect match for us to continue on the journey going forward as she has done her thesis on the core chemistry of the product.  Where we have identified potential gaps in the team that we need to build out further is in business development. Having said that, we have an experienced business development partner Michael Murray on the team who has extensive knowledge of taking basic ideas and refining them through innovative business models. He has been instrumental in the success of the project to date and has been with us from the start. Having a strong team around you who all share the same vision is crucial when starting a business, especially in the early stages.

Researchers tend to be quite technical in their nature, but we were given great advice by the Tech Transfer Office at NovaUCD, both in terms of patenting but also in putting forward a viable business case when pitching for investment and highlighting the dynamics of the team as well as being up-front about the challenges we faced in the future and how the Proof of Principle funding would help to address some of these challenges. 

Finally, we asked Andrew what advice he would have for researchers when applying for Proof of Principle investment and thinking of starting a company and spinning out from research.

One of the key pieces of advice I would give, particularly to scientific researchers is to get a business partner. Sometimes the problem with researchers is that we can be very technical and often underestimate the commercial aspects of the business, particularly when approaching investors. Often we have no idea of the potential markets and more so how to pitch to potential stakeholders or end users. I would say don’t do it by yourself. For me, securing a business partner from the very beginning was invaluable as it opened up a whole new avenue for us with regards to positioning the product in a commercial sense and what markets we should target first and why. Also, establishing a team dynamic early on and being open and patient with each other is crucial to the future success of the company.

This advice was also demonstrated by Chris Horn who recently gave a presentation at the UCD Institute of Discovery to over 70 PhD and Post Doc students about bringing an academic idea to a commercial setting.  Technical achievements won’t win this; you need someone with the market and commercial development experience as well as the patience with early stage technology development.

My final piece of advice is not to underestimate the power of networking. Researchers need to take every chance they can connect to a network when they are trying to commercialise an idea. You can find out a lot from other people’s experiences and insights. It is important is look at other successful and unsuccessful university start-up companies and not make the same mistakes, good and extensive planning is key.