Don’t worry, bees happy

UCC STEM start-up creator, Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy, who has become a role model for women in technology, is creating a buzz with her much-lauded company ApisProtect, which offers unique innovative solutions to help beekeepers prevent losses and increase productivity in their hives. Jane Haynes catches up with her

5 min read
12 Oct 2018
Photos: Clare Keogh

Picture a grocery store with no apples, no almonds, no blueberries, no kiwis, no avocados – none of the colourful fruit and vegetables that we fill our trolleys with, on our weekly shop.

Now, take that image a step further, and imagine yourself restricted to a diet of meat and bread. This would be our reality if the honey bee became extinct.

“Our nutrition would go off a cliff,” says Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy, the UCC electrical and electronic engineering graduate and entrepreneur, who is working to ensure that we are never faced with such a cataclysmic reality.

A Kanturk, Co. Cork native, Fiona is the CEO and co-founder of ApisProtect, a company that uses innovative technology to help beekeepers prevent losses and increase productivity in their beehives.

The ApisProtect team, consisting also of Andrew Wood and Dr Pádraig Whelan, uses sensors to collect data around factors such as temperature, humidity and productivity from beehives, relaying it back to beekeepers as valuable information they can use to protect their colonies.

Both Fiona, as an entrepreneur, and ApisProtect as a tech company, have received international acclaim and a slew of awards for their work tackling the global threat to the honey bee.

For the last 20 or 30 years, bees have been facing problems that they never experienced before in history. There are all these disease and pest problems that are spreading globally, affecting them in every single corner of the world.

Those buzzing insects are big players: “Honey bees pollinate a third of the food that we eat every day. It’s pretty much €153 billion worth of pollination that they provide every year to the global economy,” says Fiona.

“For the last 20 or 30 years, bees have been facing problems that they never experienced before in history. There are all these disease and pest problems that are spreading globally, affecting them in every single corner of the world.

“That’s really where we come in, and that’s how we think we’re really taking a different approach to the problems – helping the beekeeper apply the knowledge that they already have, but in a much more effective and controlled manner,” she says.

Fiona first worked with honey bees when she started her PhD in 2013, which centred on research into the application of sensors and networking in honey bee hives. The research received global recognition, being published in a series of prestigious journals.

From scooping Business of the Year at last year’s IGNITE UCC awards, to winning the Healthcare and Life Sciences prize in a competition at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, India, Fiona’s work with ApisProtect has garnered acclaim both at home and internationally.

While a love of electronics fuelled her PhD research, Fiona’s interest in science was sparked at an early age: “I was lucky enough that I went to a co-educated school, so when I was in secondary school I had the opportunity – which I think a lot of girls don’t have – to do engineering and technical drawing for my Leaving Cert,” she says.

Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy, CEO and co-founder of ApisProtect

As a businesswoman she is frequently heralded as ‘one to watch’, but the fact that ‘luck’ played a role in her ability to pursue her talent for engineering at secondary level, raises the timely topic of gender balance in STEM, a curriculum based on the four specific disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

While she admits to experiencing ‘a tiny bit of gender bias’ in the technology industry, she believes that gender isn’t necessarily the most pressing topic for discussion, here; it’s how we are equipping the next generation to flourish in a tech-driven workplace.

“I think you need to introduce not just girls, but everyone – at a much younger age – to technology,” says Fiona. “There is absolutely no reason why every single child shouldn’t be introduced to code at some point during secondary school; it’s now an absolutely fundamental part of our society and our lives.

“It’s about the world around you, and there is literally no job that you can do anymore where you’re not going to be using software or apps, so they should understand that sort of thing.”

Fiona’s passion about the importance of STEM education and her confident status as a female role model can, in part, be attributed to her stint with IGNITE, UCC’s award-winning business incubation programme set up to support recent graduate entrepreneurs.

IGNITE is an initiative, she says, that had an incredibly important impact on her, as an entrepreneur and businesswoman: “It was an amazing experience. I was coming out of college [when I started with IGNITE], and I had no idea how to do things like talking to people at networking events or giving a proper presentation, without wanting to cry under a table!”

I think you need to introduce not just girls, but everyone – at a much younger age – to technology.

With accolades such as the Best Young Entrepreneur (IBYE Cork) bestowed upon her, it’s hard to believe that Fiona was once ‘the worst public speaker on the face of the Earth’, as she now claims. But she credits the ‘supportive’ nature of the IGNITE programme as being that transformative.

“It’s amazing – it’s just ideal for people coming out of university who have ideas,” she says. “It’s a great learning experience, but also, as a network; you’re not just introduced to the wider entrepreneurship network in Cork, but also, literally, to the IGNITE alumni. It’s an awesome club to be in.”

Life as an entrepreneur is notoriously lonely, and Fiona credits the collegiality of life in the ‘IGNITE club’ as a key motivator during those inevitable ‘terrible troughs’ during the early days of ApisProtect.

But being out on her own now, is a different story. Having presented ApisProtect’s technology to Prince Charles during his visit to UCC, this year will see ApisProtect going global, with Version 2 of the platform set to be rolled out to 200 beehives in locations across Europe, the US and South Africa.

With an award-winning business and the eyes of the tech world now upon her, how does Fiona manage to stay on an even keel in a role which she describes as ‘an absolute rollercoaster’? It’s all about balance, she admits.

“It’s really important to manage it; to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to the gym now, and I’m just going to go run until I feel better.’ Or to be able to walk away from it and say, ‘I’ll just try it again tomorrow’,” she says.

Of course, reflecting on the success of ApisProtect, it’s safe to say that Fiona’s good days have far outweighed the bad. She recalls being moved to tears at the Grace Hopper Conference, named after the former rear-admiral in the US Navy, and ‘first lady of software’, surrounded by 15,000 women in STEM.

For the UCC engineer, who gets mistaken due to gender bias, as ApisProtect’s marketing or commercial officer, it’s not hard to see why such a moment of community left her feeling ‘really emotional’.

Currently, she is only too happy to embrace the title of ‘female founder’, until those gender distinctions are a thing of the past: “I would love the world to be such that it literally makes no difference that I’m a woman, but that’s not how it is. And I think until it gets to that point, then I don’t have a problem with pushing women forward,” she says. We can think of no one better suited to the job.

To find out more about IGNITE, UCC’s award-winning business incubation programme, visit www.ucc.ie/en/ignite.

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