Niamh Donnelly Talks Robotics and Resilience
24th October 2022
This week we hear from Niamh Donnelly, Co-Founder and Chief Robotics Officer at Akara Robotics. Earlier this year Niamh lifted the Expleo WMB Woman in Technology Award. As a young inspirational role model in Robotics and AI, Niamh believes that ‘having more opportunities for younger girls to develop an interest in science/engineering is vital’ if we are to increase the number of girls and women in STEM.
Q: Can you tell our readers a bit about Akara Robotics and your role?
Akara is a healthcare robotics company with a mission to develop automation to empower environmental services and other frontline workers to make hospitals safer and more efficient.
Through better use of robotics and AI technologies, we’ve shown that we can help hospitals substantially reduce downtime in critical areas (including radiology, endoscopy, operating rooms, among others) while enhancing environmental cleanliness and reducing operational costs, including staffing. This improved efficiency allows hospitals to perform more billable procedures, typically worth in the region of €500k-€1M per year for each robot deployed. At Akara I lead the development of software on our robots.
Q: You helped secure significant investment for Akara. Given that the area of Robotics and AI are relatively new, have you any advice to budding entrepreneurs on how to approach investors?
We are a Trinity College campus company. Prior to spinning out, we received a lot of support from Enterprise Ireland through their commercialisation fund program, which provided important early stage funding and mentorship to test the market and build a prototype. We are currently in the process of joining the High Potential Start-ups (HPSUs) wing where more supports are available.
Initially, we worked closely with Neil Gordon, the commercial development manager at Trinity College to set up meetings and engage with investors. We also availed of office hours at NDRC and the one-on-one commercial mentoring sessions facilitated by Intertrade Ireland to get going. We now source investor meetings mainly through our network, or the occasional cold reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Q: Less than a quarter of AI professionals are women. How can industry bridge this gap?
I think that there are three aspects to this. Firstly, encouraging girls from a young age to pursue a career in STEM. There are a number of pivotal moments throughout my childhood that I can look back on and think if I didn’t make that decision or listen to that person I could be in a completely different career. In some cases, I was being guided away from a career in STEM.
I think having more opportunities for younger girls to develop an interest in science/engineering is vital.
When I was 14 in an all-girls school, I went to an engineering summer camp in DCU, only a small number of students from our year were allowed to go. If it was the whole year, it could have influenced more people to consider studying engineering.
Secondly, it’s really hard to imagine yourself in a career when you don’t see anyone like you in that area.
Celebrating the successes of Women in Tech is really important for companies to do for young girls to see that there are women doing exciting things in tech.
And finally, I also think having support structures within the workplace to keep women in these careers is vital. One area of this is male allyship.
lt can be hard to bring up diversity issues that arise in the workplace, so having the support of male colleagues is helpful. I am really lucky that the people I work with now at Akara are all allies and believe that diversity and inclusion are important to the Akara’s success.
Q: The Disinfection Robots Market is expected to grow to c$2.79 billion (Meticulous Research). What slice of this market do you hope to secure when fully operational?
Our initial focus is hospitals in Europe and the US where due to staffing shortages and other issues, downtime for room decontamination can be very high. Our robots can reduce these periods very significantly, in some cases by hours per day, which means the hospital can perform more procedures and treat more patients.
Q: In your industry what traits are particularly useful to get ahead and stay ahead!
There are no shortcuts. Of course hard work, consistency, and resilience are key.
But beyond that,
I think that being resourceful and adapting to change are key traits needed for working at a startup.
At a young age, companies are still moulding themselves to fit the needs of the industry and users. This can mean that what you are working on can change at the drop of a hat. Not only that but with a small team a certain project may need “all hands on deck” (which is one of our company’s values) so you may have to drop what you are doing and move to something completely new.
Q: Do you think, as women, we are susceptible to ‘self-sabotage’?
I wouldn’t say self sabotage but I do feel that impostor syndrome is such a blocker for success.
I am at the point now where I can realise it’s happening and give myself a pep talk. However, for a long time, I would hold myself back and even on many occasions I have wanted to change careers, especially if someone made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be here. That mentality can be detrimental to a career and I really value the people who are supportive and understanding of these effects.
Q: How important are programmes like EIT’s ‘Start-ups Meet Healthcare Providers’ in accessing markets for Akara?
Hospitals can have complex organisational structures, lots of stakeholders and very nuanced problems that can make them hard to build traction with. The EIT Health startups meet healthcare providers program offered an excellent opportunity to engage with a top tier European hospital that was embracing new technologies, helping us shape our product to clinical, workflow, and procurement requirements.
Q: Did you always want to work in AI and Robotics?
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was younger, I was always envious of people who knew they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer – I was kind of an all-rounder at school but I always loved maths and I suppose that kind of led me to engineering.
I got my bachelors degree in mechanical engineering but towards the end of that I knew I was more interested in software development. So when I graduated I got a job in IT. I worked in a company called Etsy for a while and I left to go back to college to get my Masters in computer science and AI. I went on to work in data science consultancy and it was only then I decided I wanted to work in Robotics.
So I guess to answer your question, no I never really knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I just see interesting things happening in technology that aligned with my values and move my way towards those areas.
Q: What are your ambitions for Akara in the months and year ahead?
Right now I can’t say too much but we are really focused on building more robots and extending out pilots to more countries. We currently have robots in Ireland and the UK but we hope to extend further afield in the next couple of months.
Q: What advice would you offer your younger self when starting out?
I always wished I would stand up for myself more in certain situations so I would tell myself to speak up a little more.
A little bit about You
If you were a superhero who would you be?
Definitely Donatello (the engineer) from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
Alternative career choice, no limits?
The person who has influenced you the most?
Name three things that you’re passionate about.
Banning greyhound racing
If you had a magic wand?…
See into the future.