We fought a lot growing up. We didn’t really speak until we were maybe 19,” laughs Niamh Dooley, referring to her relationship with her brother, Ruairi.
“If you asked our parents 10 years ago if they thought we’d ever be in business together they definitely would have said no.”
“We’re close to polar opposites I’d say,” Ruairi says. “We think very differently and we’ve done different types of work, but that works out for the kind of business we’re in.”
Athlone natives Niamh and Ruairi own and operate BiaSol: an innovative food start-up launched in July 2020, which focuses on nutrition, sustainability and supports both the growing Irish bioeconomy (they were featured in UCD’s 2021 Bioeconomy Week) and circular economy.
They take spent grain from local beer breweries and transform it into a fibre-rich powdered ingredient (called super milled grains) to add to smoothies, baked goods or porridge.
As a new start-up, they are only beginning their journey and have big plans for the future. The business came together, like so many other new initiatives, as a result of the pandemic.
“It was a lockdown project; we just had extra time on our hands,” Ruairi explains. “I have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, so I said to Niamh – who wasn’t working at the time – ‘Let’s work on a project together.’”
The business began with Niamh, whose background is in food science, working from her parents’ kitchen and Ruairi, an IT project manager with a background in business, working behind the scenes while living abroad in Australia.
They brainstormed product ideas and contacted their Local Enterprise Office to do a feasibility study. Their initial idea was certainly innovative, but they weren’t sure if Ireland was ready for it.
“The first idea was to grow a cricket farm for cricket protein, because it’s highly nutritious and sustainable,” Ruairi says. “I used cricket powder over in Australia; I’d make banana bread with it. In terms of consumer buy-in - that didn’t really work out, because we found [most] Irish people aren’t ready to eat crickets. So we thought, ‘What else fits that bill?’”
“The two key facts or stats that kind of stuck in our heads was, by 2050, we need to try to increase our food amount by 60% - and then with climate change on top of that, we need to do this in a circular way,” Niamh adds. “Then also, a third of all food produced ends up as waste (and that’s mainly at a manufacturing level). This was when we realised the spent grain was there.”
Spent beer grain was the ingredient Niamh and Ruairi were looking for. It’s plentiful - thanks to our many local micro-breweries - and highly nutritious.
The beer making process takes grain (mainly malt barley and hops) and heats it to a near-boiling point. This process helps make a tasty beer, but it also removes the starch from the grain; leaving behind the husks, which are naturally high in fibre.
BiaSol currently collects grain from four different breweries: St. Mel’s in Co Longford, Dead Centre Brewing in Athlone, Bru Brewery in Co Meath and Ballykilcavan in Co Laois. While not 100% Irish, the siblings estimate that 80% of their grain is Irish-grown barley.
While Ruairi was still in Australia, Niamh spent their first months in business making connections with breweries, collecting grain and making test batches of the product.
The first brewer she made contact with was David Walsh-Kemmis of Ballykilcavan Brewery in Stradbally, which, coincidentally, is where I’m speaking with the siblings for our interview. David grows his own barley on his family’s 440ha farm before using them in his range of craft beers.
“I told David I would only need a couple of kilos,” she recalls. “I drove down with the tubs you’d have in storage at home and brought the grain to the kitchen and dried it out in the oven.
My mom was kind of freaking out over the electricity bill and the smell in her kitchen [because it takes a long time in the oven to dry out]! I milled it in a nutri-bullet and got it down to a fine consistency.”
Finding its place
At first, the siblings thought the milled grain could be used as a flour replacement, but after testing it out with different chefs and bakers they realised its true worth is as a nutrient and fibre-boosting ingredient. The mild malt flavour from the milled barley was also well-received, which is important from a feasibility perspective.
“[Our mentors at the Local Enterprise] said, ‘We know you want to do sustainability and nutrition, but it’s food – it has to taste good,’” Niamh explains. “’You’re going into a food business and taste has to be number one.’ Neither of us have a culinary background, this was really good advice.”
A big part of creating a food product is having it tested for shelf life and nutritional content. With a shelf life of up to 12 months and priced at €5.99 per box, the idea is when using one tablespoon per day, one 200g box could last up to a month.
A good portion of Niamh and Ruairi’s stockists are independent health food shops, but they also stock two SuperValus in Athlone and, in future, will be stocked in Donnybrook Fair and Avoca.
“Many people go into health food shops because they’re having digestive issues,” Ruairi explains. “They’re often recommended psyllium husks, which [usually] come from India - thousands of food miles away, and they don’t taste as nice.”
Taking the risk
Once the recipe for their Super Milled Grains was perfected, Ruairi needed to decide if he would take the risk, move back to Ireland and focus 100% of his time on BiaSol or stay in Australia.
Luckily, something happened which helped him make the decision to come home.
“We won a €50,000 investment for 10% equity in the business from Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund,” he says.
The €50,000, combined with their own personal investments, enabled them to move into a manufacturing space in Tullamore and hire staff. There are currently six on the BiaSol team.
Niamh and Rory need to collect the spent grain while it’s still fresh, so they keep their brewery partnerships within a 90 minute drive from Tullamore.
Room to grow
Currently processing around four tonnes of spent grain per week, they are looking to grow their business and hope to raise €140,000, which would put them in the high potential start-up category with Enterprise Ireland (who would then match the €140,000 – see below for more info).
Besides selling their product range, which (aside from the Super Milled Grains) includes high-protein, high-fibre baking mixes (priced at €3.99) for soda bread, protein pancakes, cookies and scones, they also sell their milled grains directly to bakeries and chefs for culinary use (distributed through La Rousse Foods).
“It’s been a quick turnaround, we’re still very much in a pilot stage,” Ruairi says. “We’re proving the concept – people are buying and are interested in our product – and it has a lot of benefits.
Now, we need to think about how we scale it. We only need 50 tonnes per week to scale over the next five years and there’s 2,700 tonnes of spent grain produced per week in Ireland, so that’s only 2% of the market share we’re using. We want to keep going.” For more visit biasol.ie
Enterprise Ireland defines a high potential start-up as a business which is internationally-focused, has the potential to employ at least 10 people within three years and can generate revenues of at least €1m.