University Bridge Fund

In Your own Words... John Browne, CEO of Kastus

This month we spoke with John Browne, a seasoned entrepreneur and CEO at Kastus.  

Kastus made world headlines earlier this year with the news that it had unlocked a scientific discovery, which will be key to controlling antibiotic-resistant killer superbugs.

Their technology can be applied to a number of industries and they are already building a global client base across many key markets. This is John’s second start-up; he grew his previous company, Smart Glass, from a small operation to a global company with customers in over 40 countries. John took some time out to speak with Atlantic Bridge about entrepreneurship.

We kicked off by asking John about his background and the journey to becoming CEO of Kastus. “I have an electronics project management and supply chain background and founded my first company Smart Glass which we grew from a start-up to an established company employing 30+ staff with €4m turnover in sales and facilities in Dublin, London and the Middle East. This process brought a lot of valuable learnings in International business development, team management, finance, PR  and marketing and provided an excellent grounding for me in the journey of company growth. There are lots of highs and lots of lows but finding the right balance is key and this is something that has taken me the guts of 10 years to learn. You also learn to forget what happened yesterday and forge on – believing in your company and your product and striving for success.

Being an entrepreneur is extremely exciting and something John is keen to continue.  He was introduced to the DIT team, through Enterprise Ireland, who he credits with providing invaluable company support when establishing Kastus. In 2017, Kastus announced a €1.5m investment led by the Atlantic Bridge University Fund.  This funding ensures Kastus will continue to be well-capitalised as it scales internationally and will be used to grow the company’s customer base.  Chris Horn Partner at Atlantic Bridge joined the Board.

John Browne, CEO & Founder of Kastus Technologies

Securing the investment and backing from the University Bridge Fund was a pivotal point for Kastus.  The investment from Atlantic Bridge’s University Fund is strong validation that Kastus’ scientific research has great potential to be commercialised into international markets. To have the backing of Atlantic Bridge is an incredible endorsement for the future,” he said. “We now have the backing of an international institutional investor who has the network to open doors in international markets from the Middle East, China and the US.  Chris Horn Partner at Atlantic Bridge and former CEO of Ireland’s most successful spin-out Iona Technologies joined the Board of Kastus and is a fantastic source of experience and advice for the Company” Browne remarks

When quizzed on the challenges of bringing a technology from the academic setting to market, John commented that “DIT had a standout technology which was originally validated for an application that wasn’t a viable product and I then identified a new application. I probably pushed the technology development process back two years as we pivoted to a more commercially viable application that had global appeal. The relationship with DIT took time to build but it payed off and in the end a great working relationship was forged with the team”. Kastus’ technology can be applied to many different applications and industries. 

We asked John about the process for prioritising near and longer term market applications. “Kastus’ technologies can add value in a range of products such as smartphones, aircraft, toilets, plastics and everything in between. Having such a wide-ranging offering is both a positive and negative, to tackle all of these markets would require enormous business development and R&D budgets. For an early stage company, we believe you have to focus on what you can feasibly achieve and on commercial deals that can be quickly closed. We quickly identified ceramics, glass and metals as key markets for Kastus; these are obvious places where there is touch and contact with surfaces and potential for contamination. We carried out extensive market research, using an outreach consultant and the EI market research centre, to assess the global markets for these and identify key industry players. From this we reached out to 40 potential clients and have forged relationships with a number of these, across the US, the Middle East and Europe, and we are carrying out collaborative testing of the Kastus technology on their end products. These initial proof of concept assessments are lengthy and expensive but will lead to process scaling and product implementation; initial results are very encouraging and we are finding additional benefits and client USP that we hadn’t anticipated.  These can be long sales cycles, which brings their own challenges, but at the end of it you have a very invested client.”

John thinks that one of the key markets for Kastus that is ripe for disruption is the smartphone industry. “The glass screen on smart phones and tablets harbour 30 times more bacteria than the toilet bowl. This is well known and presents a significant market opportunity for Kastus. The sheer volume of this market is extremely attractive. However, the challenge to capturing this market is push-back from the smartphone manufacturers who have been reluctant to high-light this issue. The near term market, that is more amenable to Kastus is ceramics; tiles and sanitary ceramics and metals (flush handles, taps etc).”

Speaking about the support landscape for early stage companies in Ireland, John commented that “as a more seasoned entrepreneur, I have strong network in place that I can call on for assistance and this is hugely helpful when starting a company. Securing investment from Atlantic Bridge provides tremendous support for Kastus due to their deep networks globally and their experience building and scaling companies”. There are a lot of services these days to support early-stage companies “Even in the DIT building where Kastus is located, the support is phenomenal – mentoring, finance, business spaces. There is also a good spread of financial support available but you need to have that disruptive technology to attract it and being a more seasoned entrepreneur is probably advantageous, having made the mistakes and learned from them”.

John sees a lot of new companies, led by first time founders and cautions of the pitfalls associated with “starting a company based on an idea rather than a product or technology that is truly disruptive – investing their time with high chance of failure”. When asked what were other words of advice that he would give entrepreneurs, John commented that your network is key - “find good mentors that you can meet for a coffee and take their advice”. 

John relied heavily on two-to-three seasoned professionals over the years, who have helped guide him through the ups and downs of company growth. “Building the network is essential, the world is a small place and leveraging tools like LinkedIn makes it is relatively easy to reach out to people across the globe and forge networks and relationships that way. You have to believe in yourself and your company and back yourself 100% of the way”.

This self-belief is something that also rings true when building relationships with investors - “the key to a good investor relationship is making sure that the investor gets your idea from the start. Both sides need to appreciate that there is an opportunity in order for the relationship to work long term. Atlantic Bridge has been a perfect fit for Kastus. I understand the global reach that Atlantic Bridge can provide and feel that having them on board adds credibility and strength to our position in the market, particularly when speaking to MNC clients, corporates and other investors.”