When Dr Fiona Edwards Murphy started her PhD at UCC in the area of Internet of Things applications for honey bee health, she could scarcely have imagined it would turn into a thriving business, now employing 13 people, with plans to expand much more in the next 18 months.
Her work on the topic of hive monitoring has received many national and international awards, but when she was deciding on an area of research for her PhD, she had no affinity to bees- “I’d never even been stung by one,” she jokes.
But it’s a path that has taken her as far away as California and South Africa, with her business Apis Protect; an exciting and rewarding path she puts down to having chosen numerous STEM subjects in secondary school.
“I loved all STEM subjects and luckily I went to a mixed school so all the subjects were available to me. I did Physics, Engineering, Tech Drawing and German for my Leaving Cert. I loved Maths too. My Dad is an engineer at Eircom and he encouraged me a great deal. I was one of those kids who asked a million questions, but he would answer every single one. My mum could see how into Maths I was and sat with me every single day while I was doing my homework, so that was huge encouragement. My teachers also encouraged me, and they suggested I apply for a ‘Women in Engineering’ scholarship, sponsored by Dell and SFI, which I got,” she says.
She says being the only girl taking Engineering for the senior cycle at school was “intimidating”, but when she moved to university, it was a “very girly class” of 5 females versus 30 males, she laughs.
“I love to tell young women, there may not have been many women in the class but mine was like a secret club, we stuck together and they are still my best friends,” she says.
While at college, having monitored bridges to see if there was too much stress being put on them whilst under construction, or monitoring blood pressure sensors on pregnant women in the developing world to help detect pre-eclampsia, she says it piqued her interest in putting sensors into the real world and “using the information collected for useful things”.
“However when it came to my PhD, there was no project that I thought, ‘I want to spend four years of my life on this’. My supervisor’s Dad was a bee keeper in Romania and he wondered if monitoring and instrumenting beehives would be useful. Before I discovered if I liked bees or even if I was allergic to them, I jumped at it and it turned out to be a great idea,” she says.
When Edwards Murphy started her PhD there were about 4 to 5 papers worldwide on sensors in beehives, by the time she finished there were 30 to 40 papers in circulation.
“I was really lucky that my strange combination of decisions put me right on the edge of an area that was exploding,” she says.
On completion of her PhD, she realised there may be a career path in the area of beehive monitoring. At university, she joined the IGNITE programme, which helps give business skills to those who have taken a technical degree.
“It helped me look at whether my idea was a good one; was there a market, could it have an impact and improve the margins of beekeeping. Along with two others we co-founded Apis Protect in February 2017. We spent the first 12 months discovering how to make it viable from a tech point of view, building a business plan and we ended up raising a significant amount of money in seed capital- 1.5 million euro by last August. That’s enabled us to employ 13 people, and we are currently monitoring 10 million bees around the world. The almond industry in California is very reliant on bee pollination and that’s where it becomes a major industry,” she says.
Apis Protect, which is based in Cork, now plans to be in around 800,000 hives over the next 5 years, with the team growing to 25 people in the next 12 to 18 months.
“We have the potential to significantly impact on the health of beehives- to help the beekeepers monitor which hives need their attention and can prevent them wasting labour and time and redirect their resources,” she says.
Currently, the Cork woman loves her career choice.
“It’s a fantastic experience, and it is amazing to have taken an idea and turned it into something that is now employing 13 people. It’s a lot more demanding than a regular job but at the end of the day, the work I put in comes back to me and I’m working towards my goal as opposed to someone else’s. It’s so worthwhile and rewarding.”
You can’t ask for more than that.