Spotlight On… Sean O’Tuama

Sean O’Tuama is the CEO and founder of Firemole; a Cork-based company that has developed a safety gadget that warns people if their electrical devices, such as mobile phone chargers, are getting dangerously hot, by sounding an inbuilt alarm. In only a year, Sean has gone from ‘idea stage’ to viable business, even passing on advice to IOEE’s very own Nathan Hardwick along the way. This month we shone the spotlight on Sean to find out about his journey so far, and how having mentors is pivotal to success.

Sean, 28, worked as an electrician for a number of years, but always felt like he had that entrepreneurial streak, he just needed to find the right business venture:

“I’ve always had an interest in business, and when I returned from Australia in 2015 I took the plunge and set up my own electrical company. But it just didn’t tick the boxes for me, and a lot of it ended up being negotiating fees and battling with people for pay rates. I knew I wanted to do something bigger.”

After there was almost a fire in Sean’s own home, he got the inspiration for Firemole:

“I was fortunate in that my knowledge as an electrician prevented anything from happening, but I’d read in the news about serious fire incidents caused by chargers that had taken lives, and I asked myself, ‘why isn’t there a device to warn you if chargers are overheating?’ – I knew what I wanted to create, but I had to figure out how to actually do it.”

Advances in technology mean that we have more electrical products in our homes than ever before, and this number is increasing: A report by Electrical Safety First showed a 35% increase in residential fires caused by electrical faults, and states that children have, on average, 10 electrical devices in their bedrooms, including phone and tablet chargers. Sean’s Firemole invention sits on top of a charger and sounds an alarm when it reaches over 54 degrees – the temperature that can cause skin damage if touched – and has the potential to prevent dangerous incidents, and even save lives.

“I took the idea to Genesis Circuits, an electronic engineering company, and MAAS engineering, a tool making company in Cork that are well-known for product development and working with start-ups. From then, everything happened quickly. Within a few days the ball was rolling, and within six months I had working prototypes, but needed funding to be able to move forward.”

Sean pitched his idea to Enterprise Ireland, securing a place on its prestigious New Frontiers Entrepreneurs Development programme, which focuses on early-stage start-ups, giving people the funding and business tools to be able to take their ideas to market. The programme is based in 14 campus incubator centres across the country, with Sean’s course sitting at the Rubicon Centre – Ireland’s premier Business Incubator Centre, located on campus in the Cork Institute of Technology. Sean says that it was an opportunity that changed everything:

“It’s an intensive entrepreneurship programme that lasts for six months. You get given €15,000 funding, your own office, and countless workshops and mentoring sessions. It’s geared up to build your business acumen, which was vital for me, coming from a purely electrical background, and you learn things like how to approach retailers and strategies for getting to market. However, even though it’s intense, it actually gave me some breathing space and allowed me to slow down, step back, and really look at the business. The experience was fundamental in getting me to the position I am in today.”

Sean says that wearing all of the different hats is part of the process of starting up a business alone, and that he’s had to turn his hand to things he had no experience of in the process:

“There was an article about Firemole going in The Journal one Saturday recently, and I didn’t have a website for them to link to and there was no time or money to go elsewhere – so I did it myself the night before. I had a couple of drinks in the pub with my friends on a Friday night and then said, ‘see you later, I’m off home to build a website!’ – and stayed up until 5am until I had something. That was a long night! But it was worth it, as we sold our first months’ projections in 24 hours.”

Firemole’s product is patent-pending and due to launch this summer, and although press coverage and public reception has been extremely positive, Sean says that he’s had his fair share of trolling on social media:

“The nature of social media means that you do get people making negative comments, but I often find this quite entertaining! Obviously, you can’t get involved yourself, but it actually gives you a chance to think about how you would answer if you were asked those questions in real life, so it’s good practice! It’s also nice to see people defend the idea too, saying how it will give them peace of mind with their children or grandparents – as that’s exactly what I’ve designed it for. But it’s very important to emphasise that Firemole focuses on fire prevention; not fire detection. It isn’t a replacement for a smoke alarm or fire detector, it’s simply a gadget that can give people that peace of mind they crave, and it could have huge benefits.”

Sean is passionate about supporting others in bringing business ideas to life, and says he couldn’t have done any of this without the support he got from people through Enterprise Ireland and the Cork City Local Enterprise Offices: 

“I’ve been given so much advice over the last year, and I’m still getting advice now. When Nathan Hardwick got in touch with me with some questions about patenting and product development, I was happy to pass on any advice I could – and product development is a minefield, so you need as much advice as you can get! I know how important it is for people to share their knowledge and experience – I couldn’t have got this far without support, so it’s great to be able to pass on what I’ve learnt.”

Sean has also recently become a member of the IOEE, and says that this will play an important part in the growth and development of Firemole:

“It’s fantastic to have that credibility, but also to be able to connect with people in the UK and get help and support with the UK market. A year ago, Firemole was only just beginning, and now there are plans to launch a whole new range of fire prevention products in 2018. It’s been a big year, and the next one is set to be even bigger.”