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Q1. Tell us where it all began

Heike and Tony started Shibumi Consulting back in 2006 having relocated their young family back from London and Germany. Heike’s background was qualitative and quantitative marketing research, consulting mostly for MNC consumer brands and the UK Government. Tony was working in a management consulting role with a focus on new product and process engineering.

The chosen Japanese business name translates as ‘great refinement beneath a modest and unassuming exterior’ which in Heike’s opinion seems a bit silly today. In 2009 Heike and Tony began collaborating with Synecco Design in Galway, Ireland’s leading medical device design consultancy.

“The Japanese name means something like great refinement beneath a modest and unassuming exterior.”

In 2014 the business took on the engineering challenges of Ecoburner, a Waterford-based producer of a unique LPG-fuelled culinary stove. This proved a great introduction to Waterford-based engineering businesses. Many patent applications were filed during that decade.

Then, a few months into the COVID pandemic Heike and Tony decided to invest in better premises and establish a proper R&D lab suitable for medical device development and the building and testing of astronomical instruments.

The business location is in the Airport Industrial Estate located beside Ecoburner. Today, there are 4 members involved in the business and all of whom are very busy with a mix of medical device engineering supervision, optomechanical design, CFD and FEA studies, exporting high precision remotely-controlled telescope mounts, developing custom software and performing bespoke market research!

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Q2. What differentiates you from similar businesses in this area?

Firstly, there are few or no similar engineering R&D businesses in Ireland.

We think there are three things that make our business stand out:

1. We do much more than fine engineering. We also address the conflicts that always exist between appropriate technology, good business, regulatory requirements and the values of our clients. While this may seem ‘fluffy’ to engineers, failure to address these conflicts are the main reason why product development projects fail.

2. We have a professional, business-like and international approach, with clear proposals and contractual terms, mature project management processes, and decades of experience in the types of work we do. This tends to mean that the risk profile of the projects we get involved with is relatively high.

3. We ‘eat our own cooking’. In addition to R&D consulting we manufacture and sell innovative scientific instrumentation developed in-house to provide a sustainable and profitable products business.

Q3. What are your top ‘moments of joy’ over the past 4-5 years?

The Irish market for product and process engineering R&D is very small, notwithstanding the large US MNC enclave that it hosts. In practice, it is not possible to build an R&D consulting business that is sustainable without a significant export dimension. This is very difficult to do, and only realistically possible by building unique capabilities in niche areas.

Brexit had a significant negative effect on the business, making it difficult to maintain links with much of the businesses UK engineering services suppliers.

Medical device R&D is ‘evergreen’ so far as cyclical recessions are concerned, but a depression would be different and like all businesses in the ‘West’ it is affected by skyrocketing input costs. Heike and Tony are fortunate about the industry connections they have, and hope that the emphasis they have always placed on developing capabilities that are almost unique will help them thrive in the difficult decade ahead.

It is hard to maintain the sort of stable work environment we would wish for our staff, due to our small size. Heike and Tony were apprenticed in their trades in large very capable businesses with structured training and career development programs.

According to Tony, that does not really exist in Ireland in the worlds of market research and engineering R&D consulting. They hope to respond by sponsoring promising graduates through PhD programmes in research-active Irish colleges where they work on problems relevant to ourselves and our clients.

“Heike and Tony were apprenticed in their trades in large very capable businesses with structured training and career development programs. ”

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Q4. What would you say are the biggest challenges your business is currently facing?

The welcome we received from the Waterford business community and the LEO, getting introduced to various business people and specialist engineering firms.

How successful a few of our inventions in the medical device and scientific instrumentation area have been. Helping shape the problem-solving skills and outlook of some of the clever engineers and managers we have worked with over the years.

Co-selling several million euros worth of advanced medical device microfluidics R&D work to a leading MNC maker of clinical analysers and gradually realising the high regard their team had for our capabilities and processes.

Q5. What does the future hold for your business?

The business is committed to growing their engineering R&D consulting business and anticipate growth in the areas of medical devices, clinical analysers, automated life test equipment and microfluidics.

For the last year Shibumi has also been developing a range of products designed to facilitate remote controlled astronomical imaging. This appears to be an emerging market. Professional and amateur astronomers in need of quality image data are increasingly turning to automated telescopes fitted with specialist multispectral cameras located in pristine atmospheric conditions at high altitude, far from human habitation. The engineering challenges involved are significant given the need for industrial standards of reliability combined with moderate cost. On the other hand, there is considerable demand for well-managed high quality equipment access, especially in southern Spain, the Chilean Andes and remote parts of eastern Australia, and hourly rental rates are lucrative.

Shibumi also proposes to develop modular automated telescopes housed in modified standard shipping containers. These will be installed off-grid, solar-powered and air conditioned, with Starlink satellite data links, and will operate unattended with minimal environmental footprint. A constellation of such instruments around the globe will be remotely managed, with instrument configuration, scheduling of customer imaging requests and billing handled by a cloud-based portal.

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“The business is committed to growing our engineering R&D consulting business and we anticipate growth in the areas of medical devices…”