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23 November 2017

Stars in Their Eyes: Irish Company ENBIO Are Sending Their Product to Space

Posted By: AIB Business

It’s not every day an Irish-made product orbits the sun. But that’s exactly what will happen when the European Space Agency launches their solar orbiter mission in 2018. The orbiter will be protected from the harsh conditions of space by an innovative technology created in Ireland by ENBIO. The technology, which has been described as ‘sunscreen for satellites,’ adds a protective layer to metals. This is critical to the mission as the spacecraft will be facing temperatures as hot as 600°C and as low as -200°C.

For ENBIO CEO, John O’Donoghue, working on space technology is the realisation of a boyhood dream. “I would have to say it’s everybody’s dream to work on something in space and that’s especially true for engineers and scientists,” he notes. “I would be lying if I said I’m not dead proud of it.”

Journey to the Unknown

Interestingly, ENBIO didn’t start out with space in mind. In the early years, the company were focused on breaking into the medical device industry, where they felt the technology could really make a difference. This conservative industry proved difficult to crack. John explains, “We were dealing with orthopaedic companies and we singularly failed to get a contract with those companies. By 2010, we found ourselves in financial difficulty.”

Thankfully, just when they were running out of luck, the stars aligned in their favour. John recalls, “At that very time the European Space Agency were struggling to find the technology to put a heat shield on the solar orbiter. We just happened to arrive at the very right time when they were in dire need of a solution. And so we changed from a med tech company to a space-driven entity.”

One Giant Leap

The company were quickly thrust headfirst into the world of space technology. “We focused on space for about 3 years from 2011 to 2014,” John explains. “It was a fairly arduous process to get qualified. For example, we had to open a new facility in Clonmel and just dedicate ourselves to it.” Thanks to the focused determination of the team, ENBIO went on to develop two coatings for the solar orbiter which are mission critical and are responsible for coating an impressive 80% of the solar orbiter.

Houston, We Have a Problem

As with every business, there have been challenges along the way and John is candid about them. “The biggest challenge is just survival,” he says. “Everything we do has a long gestation cycle. It takes a long time for companies to trust what we have and really that’s not going to change a lot until next year.”

John credits his AIB Relationship Manager, Michael Clarke, with helping to drive the business forward. “Michael recognised the gestation period that we have to go through and understood that this is not easy,” he notes. “During the really dry spells, AIB have been there for us. I can’t stress how important the bank have been to us. I don’t think this technology would be available to the world if it weren’t for them.”

The asset finance ENBIO received allowed them to acquire vital equipment to drive development forward. John explains: "We populated our workshop and laboratory with high-end equipment, some of which is unique in the country. For example, a scanning electron microscope and FTIR that allow us to accurately analyse the surface chemistry." This equipment has allowed ENBIO to shorten development periods and provide faster turnaround times for their customers.

To Infinity and Beyond

While space would seem the final frontier for most, for John the company’s most exciting days are ahead. But somewhat surprisingly, he has his sights set a little closer to home. In 2014, ENBIO set about creating a Green alternative to metal adhesion.

“If you remember the movie Erin Brockovich, the material she campaigned against in California is basically the gold standard material to prime metal surfaces to get paints and glue to stick,” John explains. The toxic chemicals used in the adhesion process are soon to be banned due to EU REACH Directives. “There are huge efforts from companies around the world to try to reach compliance with these directives and there’s not a lot of alternative technologies out there but we’re one of them,” he continues.

Although sending his invention to space is a dream realised for John, protecting the environment is the most exciting thing the company have done to date. “The impact that has on our world and for my children and hopefully grandchildren is that it makes the planet safer,” he notes. “That’s probably where we’ll make our real stamp as a company and where we’ll make our money.”

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