Read Seán Gallagher’s interview with SwiftComply co-founder and CEO, Michael O’Dwyer, for the Sunday Independent:
Digital platform cleans up by helping firms play by rules
Common to all companies with ambitions to grow their businesses is the need to raise development capital. While many manage to bootstrap during the startup stage, there comes a point for most when they simply have to reach beyond their circle of family and friends to raise more serious expansion investment. This week I caught up with Michael O’Dwyer, ceo of award-winning startup SwiftComply, whose online compliance business recently secured some serious investments and investors.
Michael O’Dwyer set up SwiftComply in 2016 along with co-founders, Lindsey Nguyen and David Gibbons. With eight full-time staff and an expected annual turnover this year of more than €1m, their online compliance business is creating quite a stir both here and in the US.
I first came across Michael having viewed the impressive YouTube clip of his investment pitch at the prestigious TechStars London accelerator programme in June of 2016 and met up with him and his team recently at the company’s headquarters on Dublin’s Francis Street.
“At first glance, our business doesn’t look all that sexy,” says Michael.
“But what we have done is create an innovative digital platform that connects those who run food and hospitality businesses with the services they require by law, from certified technical suppliers, to enable them to remain compliant with the regulations that govern their sector.
“Our unique differentiator is that we also link them directly into the regulators from the city council in a way that is more convenient and cost effective than was previously possible — and, most importantly, in a way that guarantees compliance.”
Focusing initially on services such as grease-trap cleaning and drainage line jetting, Michael and his colleagues plan to extend the range of services they cover to include everything from fire safety and buildings control regulations to food safety and environmental health — effectively becoming a one-stop shop solution provider.
Operating predominantly in Ireland and the US at the moment, the company’s main customers include restaurants, hotels, bars that serve food and companies with in-house canteens.
So how did a young man from Knocklyon in Dublin end up in such a unique business I ask?
“I studied engineering in UCD before joining Dublin City Council as a graduate engineer where I worked in the wastewater services division,” says Michael.
“My job involved sending men down to dig out lumps of grease and fat from restaurants and hotels that were clogging up the city’s sewers,” he adds.
“Faced with the increasing costs of managing an already stretched sewer network, the city council decided in 2008 to implement a “polluter pays principle” to control the problem and introduced what became known as FOG or Fat, Oil and Grease regulations,” he adds.
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Michael continued to manage the implementation of these regulations for the following four years until 2012 when he left the Council to become MD of EES (Evolution Environmental Services Ltd), which specialised in the development and management of FOG licensing and inspection programs.
One of his first hires was FOG inspector David Gibbons, who would later become co-founder and head of operations at SwiftComply.
Having seen first-hand how inefficient and frustrating it was for food and hospitality companies to operate what, at the time, was a paper-based system of compliance, the pair decided to set up SwiftComply as an innovative cloud-based solution firstly as an in-house project and later in 2016, as a separate business.
By that point, David had embarked on a postgraduate Research Masters in FOG Management at UCD School of Biosystems Engineering while Michael was in the middle of completing an Executive MBA at UCD’s Smurfit Business School.
While there, he met Lindsey Nguyen, a former engineer with Apple who had relocated to Dublin from San Francisco to complete her MBA. She would become the third co-founder.
“As a non-technical founder and ceo of a technology company, I had a steep learning curve, including everything from finding the best talent, to working with the public sector, where procurement processes can be lengthy and expensive, to raising capital,” says Michael.
Having secured feasibility funding through the EU H2020 programme and Enterprise Ireland, the company’s pivotal moment came when they were selected as one of only 11 firms, out of several thousands of applicants, to participate in the prestigious TechStars London accelerator program in June of 2016.
“If I am honest, as non-technical founders we felt like imposters — but it turned out we were exactly the type of entrepreneurs they were looking for.
“For us, the big learning was that it created a fundamental shift in our mind-set — allowing us to think bigger and aim higher than we had before,” he says.
Michael and his co-founders then went on to participate in a number of other events including Enterprise Ireland’s Access Silicon Valley, the EU Welcome Project’s Roadshow, Google for Entrepreneurs Black box VC program and the US Government-supported Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
The result was a finely-tuned business proposition, the opportunity to meet a huge network of influential contacts and an investment into the company of over $1m from private investors in Dublin, London and Silicon Valley.
These included Owen Van Natta, the first COO of Facebook and David Cohen, founder and MD of TechStars.
Significantly, the entire process helped catapult them into the US market where, less than a year later, they are getting ready to open their first US office – in Silicon Valley.
He expects to double the size of the team in the next 12 months and to see turnover rise to $10m as they grow their US base and continue to add other compliance and regulatory services to their platform.