Published on November 1st, 2011 | by Padraic Coffey0
This article was originally published on Trinity College’s Research and Innovation website in 2012.
- Uses cloud computing technology to provide intelligent information about people’s consumption habits.
- Has acquired the FDA (American Food and Drug Administration), EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), Unilever, Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal as customers.
- Won the Trinity College Dublin Innovation Award in 2011.
The Irish pork crisis of 2008 is likely to leave a lasting impression on all those who witnessed it. After dioxins far in excess of the EU’s legal limit were discovered in pork from dozens of farms across Ireland, it lead to a widespread recall of related meat products, in addition to the instant loss of hundreds of meat-processing jobs. Disastrous though this event was, an even more calamitous health epidemic had been averted, for which the population of Ireland can at least be grateful. The FSAI (Food Safety Authority of Ireland) was able to confidently assuage the direst fears of the public because of the risk-assessment software of companies like Creme.
Audrey Crosbie, the Director and Co-founder of Creme, explains the function of its cloud computing technology, and the advantage it has for those seeking an insight into the consumer intakes and exposure to harmful pesticides, contaminants, additives or nutrients: “We help companies make informed decisions and keep their products on the shelf, because we provide fast, accurate and intelligent information about people’s consumption habits, as well as an ability to analyse the potential benefits or damages.” Creme’s risk-assessment methods are far less costly and time-consuming than those previously employed, according to Cronan McNamara, Creme’s CEO and Co-founder. “If you use older methods of analysis, they often yield simplistic results without much detail. This leads of conservative risk estimates that are usually far too high, therefore triggering new clinical tests and clinical trials for their chemical compounds.”
Creme’s origins lay in the Monte Carlo research project, funded by the EU Commission in Trinity College in 2000. Cronan become aware of this project through Prof. Jim Sexton of Trinity’s School of Mathematics. After completing an undergraduate in Experimental and Mathematical Physics in Trinity, Cronan intended working in financial risk analysis. It was during an MSc in High Performance Computing that Cronan met Prof. Sexton for the first time.
Audrey brought Cronan on to the Monte Carlo project, and having achieved research funding from the European Commission, he collaborated with Prof. Sexton and Prof. Mike Gibney, then Professor of Nutrition in the Department of Clinical Medicine. This lasted approximately 2-3 years, then, with the aid of an Enterprise Ireland grant, Creme was established in 2005.
The input of both Prof. Sexton and Prof. Gibney was indispensible to the formation of the company, according to Cronan: “Prof. Gibney had been struggling with Data Sets that were incomplete, with information on what food was being consumed in Trinity, and a separate database on chemicals. Prof. Sexton brought his expertise to combine these Data Sets into a functional mathematical risk model. His kind of high performance computing expertise was quite unique in its day, and he was a world leader in that area. Between them both, they had the vision of understanding how to use proper risk analysis methods in the food safety sector.” Audrey recalls with a level of anxiety the weekend over which Prof. Gibney and Prof. Sexton pooled their resources to conceive of Creme: “I’m not sure if I ate or slept that weekend.”
Creme’s first software licence was sold to the FSAI in November 2005, an unprecedented contract in that it lasted for five years and provided 50% capital upfront, enabling Creme to be self-sufficient without the need of external investment. Indeed, the lack of external investment has been extremely beneficial to the company, according to Cronan: “We’ve managed to grow the company organically, and invest our profits in new products and marketing/sales activities. This keeps you focused on the customers, without having to divide your time selling your company to investors. We have found it much more productive to work exclusively with customers in order to generate revenues.”
Though Creme has from its earliest stages dealt with Irish customers – its second contract was with the Department of Agriculture – its main market is in international territories, such as mainland Europe and the United States. It has dabbled in Asia, working with a company in Japan, albeit in an area outside chemical risk assessment, and intends to further its market there, as well as branching into South America. However, the company remains firmly rooted in Ireland, and by 2016, Cronan hopes to have more than tripled the current number of employees from 17 to a minimum of 70, as well as setting up offices in Europe and the US. Nevertheless, the majority of staff will remain in Ireland – approximately 55-60 – with those in America dealing mainly in sales/marketing and customer support.
“I had two main motivations with Creme. Firstly, to establish a high-tech company in Ireland that would command respect internationally. That has been achieved. Secondly, to provide interesting and worthwhile employment to a range of graduates with strong Masters and PhDs. That, too, has been achieved, and we have highly qualified people working with Creme, with more opportunities to come.”
Neither Cronan nor Audrey had come from entrepreneurial backgrounds. Audrey’s father had owned his own business, though her initial two-year contract in Trinity, which began in 1995, has lasted sixteen years. Administrators in Trinity are required to seek permission from the College Secretary in order to work with a Campus Company, as Audrey did, and are allocated an addition 20% time to focus on this endeavour without it affecting their main employment.
Cronan, similarly, had never envisaged setting up his own business. With both his parents in education, he had sought to work in financial risk analysis, and when switching to Creme’s modus operandi, he promised to “bring the sophistication of financial risk analysis to the food sector”, a claim he tends to renounce since the economic downtown.
Nonetheless, Creme can be held up as a shining example of successful business enterprise within Trinity College Dublin. As Audrey has said, “We have benefitted greatly from being a Campus Company, in particular being based in the Enterprise Centre for the past five years.”
Among the proudest achievements for the two co-founders was landing both the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration of the United States) as customers.Â “The knowledge that the most powerful government regulator in the world is using our software was tremendously encouraging”, says Audrey. Other high-profile customers include Unilever, Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal. The company’s work is not limited to the food industry. Suspected carcinogen and genotoxic compounds like estragole can be found in everyday household goods like shampoos and shower gels, and Creme’s software enables such risks to be identified. There are also less straightforward ingredients which need to be assessed, such as folic acid in bread and rice, an addition which reduces the risks to pregnant women, but which can increase the likelihood of cancer in men.
Creme was awarded the Trinity College Dublin Innovation Award in 2010. The college’s then-Provost, Dr John Hegarty, said “Creme Software is a wonderful example of what can happen when academic researchers from very different disciplines get together and spark the unpredictable”.
In advising future entrepreneurs interested in beginning a technology-based company similar to Creme, Cronan recommends a strong scientific degree – such as Physics, Applied Maths or Genetics – coupled with a postgraduate in Business. “If you look at most of the best technology companies in the world – Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft – they were started by technological people, enabling them to understand the workings of the business to the core. Postgraduates in business or entrepreneurial studies can be absorbed quite easily later on, or a business partner can be brought in to help, but if you’re interested in technology or science, that is where you should begin.”