It’s not every day you get a phone call from the head of the National Forces of Brazil, enquiring about your small business, but that’s a boast which Michael Brady can now make. As the Managing Director and founder of Lisburn-based Cocoon Architecture, he’s found that his phone is becoming more of a hotline with each passing week.
An architect by trade, Michael possesses a natural fixation with the built environment and use of space. The original idea for Cocoon came to him having experienced one too many outdoor concerts being compromised by the weather gods. It seemed as if the world was crying out for a practical, easily-deployed canopy structure -- something simpler than marquees and less cumbersome than modular buildings. Two co-directors, Jonathan Scott and Paddy McShane, climbed on board with mechanical engineering expertise, helping Cocoon’s seed concept to expand into an eye-catching enterprise -- much like the product itself.
This small business was founded in 2008, and the many intervening months have been dedicated to developmental work and prototypes. They began selling their novel event enclosure devices in 2011.
"We’re at the third generation of prototypes now,” explained Michael while interviewed prior to their product release. "For the last 18 months, we’ve been concentrating on our trailer-based Mobile Cocoon. It’s a complex process -- you’re talking about multiple components and constant testing, but we’ve done our research and it seems to be paying off now."
Indeed, during development it became apparent that the product’s potential market scope was larger than previously anticipated. "It’ll cut down hugely on hire costs," continues Michael. "You can buy it and learn to set it up very quickly, for all sorts of events. We’ve had interest from disaster relief agencies, aviation companies and security organisations -- all sorts of good contact."
Of course, the costs associated with a project of this nature are not inconsiderable, but Cocoon found help at a fairly early stage through Invest Northern Ireland (Invest NI.)
"I had the idea for Cocoon, but no idea how to commercialise it," comments Michael. "They[Invest NI] saw that it was an interesting idea and advised me to apply for a SMART Award."
The SMART initiative’s contribution amounted to a business grant of £45,000 and, amongst other things, enabled the creation of a proof of concept model, prototype work and, all manner of research and development and calculations, plus the furthering of the overall business plan. Invest NI then secured Cocoon a place on their TRANSFORM scheme (the forerunner to the current Propel business support programme), which provided business funds to cover the lack of a company wage, thereby contributing £20,000.
It was around this stage that the company switched focus from their original product, the larger Cocoon/365, to the Mobile Cocoon, for commercialisation and cost reasons. Further financial aid then came in the form of a £48,000 R&D funding grant, again facilitated via Invest NI (and augmented by E-Synergy, a fund management company), who has since also provided around £16,000, in total additional grant money. The latter supported various patent-work and costs associated with attending expos and other shows.
The entire financial assistance has also helped with some consultation and design work but, in the main, it’s spurred the crafting of the physical prototypes, including the purchase of component parts, plus the project management involved in turning them into fit-for-market creations.
The procedure for securing these business funds was no cake walk. Invest NI had to be convinced that it was a good idea, sensibly mapped out, and that the team knew their offering inside out. They did, and Cocoon negotiated the necessary hurdles, labouring through application forms, creating financial forecasts, honing their business plan, submitting to interview panels, and showing demos of their products. The Belfast-based economic development agency has therefore played an important role in Cocoon’s story.
Whilst Michael also stresses that his team have invested a lot of their own money into the project (and didn’t draw wages until they began trading), he readily acknowledges Invest NI’s help.
"We couldn’t have done this without their funding, certainly not to get where we are now," he states."A big investor, or some VC company, would have been the only alternative, but we’d have been forced to give away a big chunk of the company if we’d gone down that route." The business aid Cocoon received has helped to make that prospect little more than a memory.
"They’ve [Invest NI] been very good to work with," asserts Michael. "They don’t give you everything on a plate though, which is good, as there’d be no point in that. It can be slow-going, too, but hey, you’ve got to justify the use of public money. Be professional with them and they’ll do the same with you. They want you to be successful after all, to help the economy and create jobs."
When asked for advice for those just starting out, with designs on funding of their own, Michael is clear.
"First of all, your idea has to be good enough. If it is, well, four years ago, I knew nothing about funding, and the help’s been great, but I realise now that it’s not just about the money. Invest NI make you their client and give you access to events and other support -- it opens doors, raises awareness, and gets you exposure to contacts and networks. One course recently led to contact with the UKTI (UK Trade and Investment), who spoke to contacts in Canada and Brazil about future events there, and what we’re offering."
It was shortly after this occurred that Michael "got a bell' from Brazil. So, if you see a myriad of cocoon-like structures in place at the Rio Olympics in 2016, it might be safe to assume that they originated in Northern Ireland.
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