Equilume: a farming innovation

You’re never going to make stuff happen without risk. You can’t sit at home waiting for all the traffic lights to go green before you head out in the car. 

Peter Brady is chief executive of Equilume, a wearable technology product that encourages thoroughbred mares to foal earlier in the year. Given that all horses share the same official birth date, January 1st, those born earlier in the year have a natural competitive advantage over those born later.

The Equilume Light Mask, which fits under a horse’s head collar, uses blue light to adjust a mare’s hormone levels. It was invented by Dr Barbara Murphy, a UCD equine science lecturer who set up the company in 2012. The company has since won a number of innovation awards, including an Enterprise Ireland ‘One to Watch’ nomination in 2012.

Serial entrepreneur and chartered accountant Peter Brady joined Equilume as CEO in 2013 to help secure investor funding of €750,000 and launch the product commercially. Today the company employs seven people and its product is sold around the world, with Australia and the US its two biggest markets.

What’s your business’s elevator pitch?

Equilume is a science-driven business resulting from equine research carried out in University College Dublin by Dr Barbara Murphy. Dr Murphy’s research revealed that administration of low-intensity blue light via optoelectronic components to a single eye of a horse inhibits the production of the reproduction regulatory hormone, melatonin.

What do you regard as your business’s greatest achievement?

The commercialisation of a product that has reached the global thoroughbred market. That includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the USA, the Middle East and, of course, Ireland, the UK and the rest of Europe.  

What was the lowest moment?

When we started we had a number of product failures in the field. With any technology, the most important thing you can do is get it out into the marketplace as quickly as possible and work from there to fix any glitches as they are exposed.

In our case, one of our early masks, which had trialled brilliantly in Australia, fell foul of a particularly wet Irish winter. We took it back, fixed it, and it hasn’t happened again.

How have you coped with setbacks?

With any new technology product, customers realise glitches may arise so they don’t judge you on that so much as on how well and how quickly you respond. Whatever the issue, address it openly and honestly with your customer, and keep working with determination.

“People told me it wouldn’t work in the thoroughbred industry, but now 100% of our sales in our biggest markets come online”

What’s your attitude to risk?

You’re never going to make stuff happen without risk. You can’t sit at home waiting for all the traffic lights to go green before you head out in the car. You just go. In business you have to have the courage of your convictions and just go for it. After all, he who makes no mistakes makes no progress.

What is your business’s biggest challenge?

When people think about the thoroughbred industry, they think of an industry with a lot of money in it, and there is. But at stud farm level, it’s the stud farm manager’s decision whether to pay €350 for one of our masks or not.

What happens with us is that farm managers who buy five one year come back and buy 25 the next, but making that first sale is the hard part. You’re up against tradition, the way things have always been done.

What kind of marketing has worked best for you?

We could hire in a distributor to sell our product but what really works are feet on the ground doing direct marketing, going out to explain the benefits of the product in places like Kentucky and Hunter Valley. We go to trade shows too. It’s all about explaining the benefits to the industry.

Who has inspired or motivated you and why?

Dr Barbara Murphy. Loads of people have an idea. Seeing it through to commercialisation is the hard part, and that’s what she did.

What do you do, if anything, to switch off from the business?

Watch a rugby match and have a beer.

What would you do differently if you were starting your business today?

I’d push harder to get it capitalised earlier. It took a whole year to close our first funding round, and that slowed us down because securing funding is a job in itself. Everything takes longer than you think, and not having enough money actually costs you money.

For example, we’ve just one trade stand, so we had to fly it around the US to six different trade shows, which is really expensive. It would have been much cheaper to build six separate trade stands but, at the time, we couldn’t manage that from cashflow.

What lessons have you learned in business that others could apply?

Don’t take no for an answer, there is always another way. When you’re out looking for venture capital there’s always someone who’s going to tell you your business is not sexy enough, won’t scale up enough or that they’ve just closed a big deal somewhere else. Don’t be sensitive, be tenacious.

Finally, if there was one piece of business advice you’d like to give to another business owner, what would that be?

Network with your peers to learn a lot. Every small business faces the same issues, regardless of the sector they are in. In fact, you can learn loads from what they do in other sectors.

In our case, the tradition is that equine goods are typically bought, on account, from a local vet. But that would have caused us cashflow headaches. Someone in another industry suggested we make all payments online.

People told me it wouldn’t work in the thoroughbred industry, but now 100% of our sales in our biggest markets come online. And even better, we don’t have to pay any margin to a distributor.

Find out more at Equilume.com.