Published on November 1st, 2011 | by Padraic Coffey0
This article was originally published on Trinity College’s Research and Innovation website in 2012.
- Employs over 30 people.
- Has contracts with Superquinn, Dunnes Stores and Sainsbury’s.
- Operates a fully-fledged production laboratory in Kansas, servicing both the US and Canada.
- Recently raised €2 million in a funding round.
Established in 1996, Identigen is a thriving campus company which produced the unique tool DNA Traceback, used by beef and pork suppliers to accurately gauge the genetic makeup of their source animals. It was co-founded by Ciaran Meghen and Dr Ronan Loftus, and has grown from strength to strength since its inception. Like many of those from an academic background to co-found companies in Trinity College, Ciaran was in the midst of his PhD on Bovine Genetics when the catalysing event for the company occurred: the announcement of a link between BSE (‘Mad Cow Disease’) and CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative brain illness). As Ireland is such a prominent net exporter of meat products to the UK, this crisis created generated an industry where one may not have existed prior to 1996. Ciaran says: “we found an audience receptive to the ideas, and willing partners, all of which were enabled by BSE. The company’s formation was galvanised by the BSE crisis in the UK, and thereafter the PhD was never finished.”
In order to explain the function DNA Traceback, Ciaran describes their typical customer: “If a supermarket or food service buyer has a commercial specification, which is to obtain the cheapest meat available, regardless of its origin, they are not likely to be a customer of ours. Our customers are more likely to have a commercial specification that stipulates economic attributes of the meat product: for instance, for it to be matured 21 days, post slaughter, for added tenderness; or sourced from quality assured farms that have subscribed to certain standards; or to be confirmed of, at least, half-bred Hereford cattle. Those specifications have a lot of commercial value. If our customer finds a willing supplier on the market, DNA Traceback acts as a way of insuring that the buyer of the product is getting what they pay for. These premium attributes attract premium pricing in the meat chain.”
An early milestone in the formation of Identigen was successfully securing of an applied research grant from the Department of Agriculture, which they used to fund a development project in partnership with Superquinn. This partnership is an especially proud moment for Ciaran: “We had nothing more than an idea; it was entirely conceptual, and had no parallel in any other context. From a personal point of view, that a national food retailer would make a hard-nosed commercial decision to spend a considerable sum of money on this technology was certainly a defining moment for me.Â It fitted very comfortably with Superquinn’s position in the market as a high end retailer, associated with traceability and provenance, long before that was a buzzword anywhere else. So when we commercialised the product, it was effectively Superquinn who had co-developed it with us.”
Identigen’s ambitions for the DNA Traceback are two-fold. While assuring that the source of the meat is consistent with the quality promised by high-end retailers such as Superquinn, Ciaran also hopes the DNA Traceback logo will itself be a sign of quality of packaged meat products, and thus help marketing for their customers. Ciaran aspires for the Identigen’s DNA Traceback emblem to achieve a similar level of recognition to the Fair Trade insignia. “We hope to capture a significant consumer branding space; to in effect become a minimum standard, once the market really begins to take off.”
Having acquired key accounts with Superquinn and Dunnes Stores, Identigen have little competition in the Irish market. As a result, 70% of the company’s sales are in international markets. Their DNA Traceback tool is used by Sainsbury’s in the UK, and they have laboratories in Wales, but their predominant area of activity is the US and Canada. Ciaran describes their base there: “People often say we have an office in the US. Actually we have a fully-fledged, high end production laboratory in Lawrence, Kansas that services our North American needs, and it is that operational and financial commitment to the Market which boosts our customers’ confidence.”
Indeed, North America has so far been a more penetrable market than much of Europe for Identigen: “Ours is a service-driven technology, so proximity to the market is crucial. We found it difficult to try and service France from Ireland. France, though it may be a stereotype, is quite nationalistic in relation to where it places its business. Approximately 90% of its public procurement contracts go to French companies, whereas 20% of Ireland’s go to Irish companies. We cannot set up labs in every European company, however; the market scale simply is not there.” Identigen have also chosen not to venture into Australia, to compete in a relatively small domestic market.
In advising future entrepreneurs, Ciaran stresses the importance of researching a market before entering into it: “In Spain, beef is not a sensitive product category, as opposed to hake, cod, or Serrano hams. Thankfully, at this stage we’ve learned that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach absolutely does not work, so before we go into Uruguay or China, we must understand if we fill their requirement, instead of simply generating awareness and educating potential customers.”
Identigen are ambitious about their future. “We are focused on growth opportunities for the business, as the scale at which we operate is an order of magnitude lower than where we need to be in order to fulfil our ambitions. There’s no reason we can’t increase the size of our lab in America 10-fold to 100-fold, if the market adopted the technology it potentially could.”
Identigen employs a total of 33 people, in a mix of full and part-time contracts. At its peak, in 2008, it employed 48 people. Since 2008, there has been significant winding down in the requirements for the regulatory-driven disease-application programme, funded by the government, relating to SE testing. This accounts for the reduction in the number of staff since 2008.