Annie Madden is the co-founder of FenuHealth, an award-winning company producing supplements to help prevent and resolve stomach problems in horses and ponies. Having recently been named as Enterprise Ireland’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year, UCC student and Quercus Scholar Annie reflects on launching her business as a teenager and the lifelong passion that fuels her entrepreneurship. In conversation with Jane Haynes.
To count both the Enterprise Ireland and Global Student Entrepreneurs of the Year among our student body is an exceptional boast for UCC; however, if you had to use one word to describe Annie Madden and Nick Cotter, it would in fact be: exceptional.
For these two entrepreneurs – incidentally, both Quercus* Innovation and Entrepreneurship scholars studying Business and Law – their achievements are the result of a passion for innovation along with years of hard work and dedication to turn their bright ideas into successful businesses.
Meath native Annie is the co-founder of FenuHealth, a company she set up with her sister Kate back in secondary school. The business, which produces natural products to maintain good stomach health in horses and ponies, evolved from a BT Young Scientist competition project. Like all great businesses, FenuHealth developed from a common passion among the Summerhill sisters, who grew up around horses and ponies.
“It’s a bit of a family thing, to be involved in horses. We all rode ponies before we could walk, pretty much – we were thrown up on anything!” says Annie, whose Corkonian grandfather still breeds racehorses.
“Stomach problems are a huge issue for horses – 50% of foals, 70% of sport horses and 90% of racehorses have stomach problems … When we started off, it was to help the horses,” she explains.
Having had a taste of Young Scientist in her first year of secondary school, Annie returned to the competition – a remarkable breeding ground for Ireland’s exceptional young entrepreneurial talent – a year later, with Kate and the project that would form the basis of FenuHealth.
While Annie admits she had ‘no intention’ of setting up a business, the potential for success with the product was undeniable, and a week after the competition, the sisters leapt into action. Just two months later, the Maddens were at Equitana in Germany, the world’s largest equine trade fair, for market research.
Setting up a business while still in your teens is quite the accomplishment, but it also brings its own unique set of challenges – chiefly, Annie admits, being taken seriously at such a young age and stage in their careers.
“We probably had to work a little bit harder to be taken seriously at the start because we’re two quite young female entrepreneurs,” she says.
“Your typical racehorse trainer trains 200 horses; or an owner might have 200 or 300 horses, and they’re typically a 50-/60-/70-year-old man – it’s a bit hard to be taken seriously. So those situations could be a bit stressful, but you just have to back yourself.”
And that’s exactly what they did, to incredible success. An award-winning company, FenuHealth now produces nine products – eight for horses, one for racing camels – in 15 countries. While their primary markets are Ireland and the UK, France and Germany are key countries for racehorse and leisure horse clientele, respectively. While the company is also enjoying success in Dubai and Qatar, Annie admits that breaking into the American market is a major goal.
"When we started off, it was to help the horses" - Annie Madden
Business and Law was a natural course choice for the entrepreneur, but it was Annie’s family connections to Cork, along with the opportunities offered by the Quercus scholarship, that drew her to UCC. The decision paid off, with Annie admitting that she ‘loves UCC’ and the freedom of choice she has with the mix of two course disciplines.
Of course, university life extends well beyond the lecture theatre, and Annie – whose bubbly disposition transcends the confines of our Teams call – has embraced every aspect of campus life and is an active member of UCC’s swimming and Gaelic football clubs. Annie also still competes with her horses, describing it as ‘the best fun’.
Annie’s passion for the sport and her love of horses have been pivotal in growing the business and developing as an entrepreneur over the past eight years: “I don’t know if I’d be as involved in something if it wasn’t an area that I was actually interested in. I genuinely enjoy it, so putting the time into it was a bit easier; and then, obviously, having Kate with me was a help.”
It’s that enjoyment and can-do attitude that spurred Annie on to enter the Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year competition, which she ultimately won. With textbook modesty, she admits that she ‘really didn’t expect to win’, and it’s an even greater credit to her talent and dedication that she did so while simultaneously completing an internship with Matheson. She is gracious as she describes how accommodating the law firm was while she ‘hopped back and forth’ between the office and the competition for presentations – and she was, of course, ‘thrilled’ to win.
After an exciting few years, Annie is hopeful for what is to come – chiefly, growing the business and launching FenuHealth successfully in the States: "Most of our customers at the moment are racehorse owners, so we’re trying to release more into that sport market – your showjumpers, your dressage horses – and get that up a little bit. And with that, try to expand into more countries – I will get to America one day, I promise!"
We don’t doubt her for a second.
*The Quercus Talented Students’ Programme is supported by Bank of Ireland.
Visit the FenuHealth website for more information.
Photography: Diane Cusack