Martin O’Connell: What It Means to Win the 2016 AIB Start-Up Academy

Founder of Niscal Medical, Martin O'Connell, on stage holding up the AIB Start-Up Academy 2016 winners trophy.

For Martin O’Connell, the weeks since being crowned the 2016 AIB Start-up Academy champion have been a bit of a blur: “The reception we’ve received since winning has been, can I say mental? We’ve received calls, texts, emails and messages on Facebook and Twitter. And I still have hundreds of them to get back to,” he laughs.

Martin’s own newfound stardom aside - his company, Nasal Medical, is also reaping the benefits of the win. He adds: “The company’s really thrived. We set up an e-commerce site through the Academy and that’s gone really well so far. In the last two weeks, we’ve got a lot of sales. So I’m hoping to keep that going for the future”.

Designing a Winning Product

Martin is the founder of Nasal Medical, who produce anatomically designed devices to aid healthy breathing. Their products include a range of nasal filters which alleviate the effects of pollution, seasonal allergies, snoring and sleep apnoea.

While the filters are designed with human problems in mind, they were originally intended for a very different type of patient. Martin reveals: “We thought of the product initially because a few of our cows on our farm in Kerry got infected with tuberculosis. Coming from an electrical engineering background, I knew that electrostatically charged material could help.

“We worked on it for a while but then decided to switch to the human side due to higher demand”, he explains. “We knew that pollution in Asia was more prevalent and we had a market there.”

Winning the AIB Start-up Academy

Martin is still recovering from the Start-up Academy Final, where he pitched his business to an audience of 350 people, which included a few VIPs - the judging panel. Recalling the event, he says: “I was a bit nervous, but once I got on stage and moved past the first slide, I relaxed a bit more. I think when you’re passionate about something, it flows better and it’s easier.”

Although he was up against some very tough competition, Martin says the atmosphere was supportive throughout. He explains: “The other 10 finalists were fantastic. I didn’t think I had a chance against any of them. I really got to know them over the eight weeks and I think I’ll be friends with them for a long time to come. It really wasn’t a competitive environment at all. We all just clicked because we were so like-minded.”

Now that the long road to the final is over, Martin is looking forward to the boost that winning is going to give his business. “The prize package is going to be invaluable for our company,” he explains. “We know that we can grow effectively and efficiently now with the mentorship and the advertising to go with it. It’s every entrepreneur’s dream.”

What Martin Learned from This Year’s AIB Start-up Academy

And the prize package isn’t the only thing Martin has gained from his time in the Academy. The advice of the mentors has proven invaluable in the development of his company. “The Start-up Academy has been absolutely brilliant for us. It came at a pivotal time for our business,” he enthuses. “I was just telling my wife, Marie-Louise, that I’d love to get all the mentors in a room and come up with a business idea because they could make any company successful. They were absolutely fantastic.”

And the Academy has already had a tangible impact on his product. “During the Design Thinking module, we incorporated an additional feature into our nasal dilator,” he explains. “We’re now infusing the device with eucalyptus and tea tree oils, which will open up the airways even further. And that all stemmed from the Academy.”

Martin has been taking some well-deserved rest since the win (His wife Marie-Louise jokes that it’s the first time he’s been able to leave their home office in months.) but he’s already looking ahead to what’s next for Nasal Medical.

“The next step for our business is to get the product onto shelves in Ireland, and then to get into the global market,” he says. “We have distribution in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. But we know we have a lot of work to do, and we want the product to be accessible and affordable as well.”

Martin’s One Lesson for Start-ups

Martin has learned a lot over the course of the AIB Start-up Academy, but when asked what advice he would give to other Start-ups, he doesn’t hesitate. “Do your research,” he says. “Any company that’s starting out should be asking - does the customer really need this product? Get out onto the streets and ask customers if this is something they need.

“Your family and friends will probably tell you it’s a great idea but when you actually get it out to the masses, it might be a completely different story,” he laughs. “So get out there and do your research. And then apply to the AIB Start-up Academy!”

Learn More about Growing Your Business

The AIB Start-up Academy sees 11 new companies compete for the chance to win a prize package worth €250,000 to develop their business. Find out more about the AIB Start-up Academy at The Irish Times, on @AIBBiz, and check out the photo album on Facebook.