Fiona Kelleher is the COO of MyGug. She has a degree in creative arts and a Masters Degree in education and administration. Fiona oversees the administration within the company and supports the R&D work of the company through strategic management and creative consultation.
Based in Clonakilty in West Cork, MyGug Ltd is a company with an ambition to change the face of food waste. The company has been in business since early 2022 and is already making an impact in education and food businesses.
The MyGug product is the solution to the problem of food waste, energy use and food security for the future. MyGug Ltd was named AIB and The YieldLab AgTech Start Up of the year 2023 as well as being selected for the Harvard Climate Entrepreneurship Circle in 2022. MyGug Ltd is also a ﬁnalist for the Cork Digital Marketing Awards 2023.
In this episode, we chat about the story behind this Cork based start-up, their new age solution to an age old problem, scaling the product, the importance of local supports, ongoing discussions for governmental incentives and being persistent.
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Duration: 21:51 mins
Fiona's Takeaway Tip
“Persistence is key.”
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[00:00:08] Geraldine Hennessy: Welcome to the Cork Creative Podcast. With this podcast, we hope to promote local creative businesses and people. I’m your host, Geraldine Hennessy from Flux Learning, and today I am joined by Fiona Kelleher from the Cork based startup, MyGug. Fiona co-founded MyGug alongside her husband, Kieran Coffey, who designed and created the system.
MyGug is a food waste solution that is installed in your garden, yard or business. It digests all raw and cooked food waste and uses it to produce a free, reliable source of biogas perfectly suited to cooking, as well as a liquid fertilizer. In this episode, we chat about the story behind this new age solution to an age old problem, scaling the product, the importance of local supports, ongoing discussions for governmental incentives, and being persistent.
So you’re very welcome to Cork Creative, Fiona.
Tell us a little about yourself and the story of how MyGug came to be.
[00:01:03] Fiona Kelleher: So MyGug probably started its life back in 2019 and that’s when we were approached by a local business to help them with their food waste problem. And the reason he approached us was because he had seen a clip of us on an Eco Eye broadcast on RTE featuring Duncan Stewart. He had come down to our house in Clonakilty where my husband Kieran, who’s the designer and creator, had put our first prototype MyGug system, which was an egg in the garden, which was taking all our food waste and converting it into energy.
So he was very interested in this for his business. So we collaborated with Guy Scott. He’s got a lovely cafe out in Kilbrittain called Rebecca’s Cafe. And he and his daughter Rebecca run the business and it’s a lovely cafe. And they were the first commercial business in Ireland to take on the MyGug. So it’s been there since 2019 and running very successfully and provides them with gas for cooking for their business and also fertilizer for growing food for the business, which they bring back in.
So it’s a complete circular economy.
[00:02:02] Geraldine Hennessy: Very good, very good.
And how did the name and branding come about?
[00:02:05] Fiona Kelleher: MyGug refers to the word gug which is an Irish kind of play on words for egg. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across it before. There’s songs, for instance, in Irish traditional music called Gugalaí-gug, which talks about like just an egg being kind of, you know, something that you might like to have for your tea or your breakfast.
So it’s a play on that because it’s an Irish product and the egg is the shape of the digester. We thought that that was a really fun name and people seem to really like it. And actually it seems to translate overseas as well to the UK and further afield. It’s easy to say, so whether or not people pick up on the meaning, but we love it because it really speaks to the Irishness of the project.
[00:02:39] Geraldine Hennessy: Very good. It’s not just a loose word.
[00:02:42] Fiona Kelleher: It’s just, it’s actually… Not very random at all. Yeah. Really, there was a bit of thought into it. I mean, we were going out on a limb. People were going, hmm. But at the same time, I suppose it is speaking to that Irishness and that’s something that was important to us as well.
Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Okay. Very good. And how does MyGug work?
Fiona Kelleher: So basically it’s a food digester. It’s a bit like your own stomach. It’ll take everything that you eat. So any cooked food, any raw food that you can eat, the digester can have, which is really brilliant for food businesses and schools and for homes as well because we have so much food waste.
In fact, it is seen in the data from Europe and the UK and all over the globe that food waste is mostly created in homes and small food business. So that’s where we’re tackling the food waste. And what it’ll do is it’ll take all the food waste from your kitchen and it would convert it into energy. So you literally put the food waste into the sink that’s attached to the digester. And the food waste is then macerated and then it’s pumped at intervals into this heated insulated tank, which is the egg, which is the cook. And then from there, that food waste is converted into two things. And the first is biogas for cooking. And the second is fertilizer for growing food and the liquid fertilizer is great because it’s a liquid.
It’s really convenient. It can go straight onto your plants. It’s really high in nutrients and it’s totally organic. Your own food waste created the fertilizer and also the biogas. Then we provide a cooker as well. which can go straight into the kitchen, so it’s perfect for accessing the gas.
[00:04:04] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay, okay.
And you said there Kieran designed it. How did he just come up with the idea?
[00:04:08] Fiona Kelleher: He was working in Cork County Council and one of his remits was to work in landfill for a while. So he found himself standing in these places thinking. What are we doing? What are we doing with this resource? And he had, I mean, his qualifications were in environmental engineering.
So one of those things was about food waste and looking at how you might use it in anaerobic digestion, which is the process that is used in the digester was something he was very interested in for a long, long time and was very much part of his work. So we thought, you know what we need? We need something for food business.
We need something for households because that’s where all the food waste from landfill goes. In an agriculture or industrial context where you see bigger digesters that use anaerobic digestion, it’s a very different thing because you’re talking about farmland, you’re talking about agricultural waste and so on and so forth.
But food waste is a problem and it ends up in landfill. So instead of the methane and the biogas as we call it, going into the atmosphere, you can plug it into your cooker instead of that leachate, that liquid that you get in landfill, from that anaerobic process with food waste, you use that for your plants and your nutrients.
So all of that goodness can be harnessed.
[00:05:15] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. So he basically saw the problem first-hand, came up with a solution.
[00:05:19] Fiona Kelleher: Came up with a solution. And I suppose there are other products out in the market, really good ones, like aerobic digesters, and they produced just a compost. Obviously you have your compost bin, you have your brown bin for storage and so on and so forth.
But really, what’s happening there is you’re only delaying the problem, you’re storing the food waste, you’re looking at transport emissions, you’re looking at storage problems, you’re looking at hazards like odour and environment, and for food business in particular, that’s something that they really want to avoid.
And this is why it’s such a great solution because you’re keeping your food waste on site, you’re gaining economic as well as sustainable value, and your customers will love you if you’re producing food on site, it’s got local provenance. Your sustainability credentials will be through the roof because you couldn’t be doing better with your food waste.
[00:06:02] Geraldine Hennessy:
Yeah. And I suppose you’re dealing with the problem there and then like there’s no messing. Quite right. Yeah. And it’s a very, like, as you say, a financially good solution in the long term, I suppose, as well as just the environmental provenance of it. Completely. Yeah.
And you mentioned there about the MyGug, about the aesthetics of it. It’s very kind of pleasing in terms of they’re almost like sculpture like, um, egg shape and color. Can they come in any color and how small and how big do they come?
[00:06:29] Fiona Kelleher: So we’ve three sizes available for the commercial market. So there’s three. One is the MyGug Mini. We have the MyGug Midi. And the MyGug Maxi.
So three different sizes and ranging from taking food waste for two tons per year up to about seven tons per year. So that makes sense for a small food business and it makes sense for schools and universities as well. And we do have some in schools and universities. Colour wise, you know, the world is your oyster really, but I mean within reason.
So they come in a range of colours at the moment. People have chosen things like red or yellow or green or black or blue. So those are the ones that are out there. So quite a range of colours and they look good. An egg is such a beautiful shape, it comes from nature, so it’s very easy to make it look good.
[00:07:08] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, yeah. Very good.
Is the egg shape for aesthetics or does it serve a functional purpose?
[00:07:13] Fiona Kelleher: It is for aesthetics, but it also is a function because an egg has no corners, it has no sides. Then it means that you don’t have any waste because the material that goes in is being constantly mixed within this digester.
So you don’t have any dead spaces within it. So you’re getting the best value then from your food waste. You’re getting the best output in terms of the gas and the fertilizer.
[00:07:32] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. So it’s not, it’s not just a pretty thing.
[00:07:34] Fiona Kelleher: Not just a pretty face.
[00:07:35] Geraldine Hennessy: Very good.
Anaerobic digestion is often associated with farming and MyGug is primarily aimed at commercial operations like cafes and restaurants and schools.Do you think there is a scope to make it commonplace in a domestic setting?
[00:07:48] Fiona Kelleher: Completely. We actually do have some domestic customers. Early on in the life of the business, we got a lot of I suppose, you know, interested inquiries from people who are in their own homes thinking, look, I’ve got all this food waste, especially families with children and, you know, it’s very hard to control your food waste in that situation.
So we have some units out in the domestic market and they’re working really, really well. But I suppose in terms of targeting and running the business, you can only deal with one segment at the time. So we actually have quite a long waiting list for domestic and we’re hoping to launch next year with that.
Okay. To allow people to buy so that they can have it in their homes. But right now the focus is on schools. It’s on small food business and we think we can make a good impact there and also create case studies and test ground for domestic customers so they can see what it is because it’s a new technology.
Yeah. And when something new comes along, we need to give it a little bit of a pathway, I suppose, to become established. And because of that, we think that schools and food businesses are great places to go where you can really prove the technology and then domestic, hopefully after that. But yeah.
[00:08:48] Geraldine Hennessy: , I suppose for, we’ll call it world domination of the common home setting I suppose people want to make sure that it’s working
[00:08:55] Fiona Kelleher: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And I mean, you know, it does work, but I suppose as people who don’t understand the technology, you need to come to grips with that, you need to understand the process, you need to know how to work the technology. No, it’s not rocket science. It’s literally put your food waste in and let it do its job, but in terms of maintenance and management, it’s just like running a washing machine or something else. You just need to learn how to use it and manage it and maintain it. Yeah.
[00:09:19] Geraldine Hennessy: Because I think there’s great scope there. Like I know myself before I had kids, I used to have great management of my food waste, but since the kids ,they start with eating one thing and then they throw… “I don’t want that anymore”. And then they want something else. So it’s trying to manage that. It’s difficult. It is difficult.
[00:09:32] Fiona Kelleher: Yeah. And I mean, when you think of it all, that food waste is a resource that you could be bringing back into the house to cook the food.
[00:09:40] Geraldine Hennessy: It seems like sometimes the most simple ideas are the best. It just seems like once I saw it, I went, that makes a lot of sense.
[00:09:45] Fiona Kelleher: It’s a bit of a no brainer. And the thing about it is, is that it’s just that it has up to now been not accessible, I suppose, to those markets to the domestic market and the food waste market. Previously in an agricultural and industrial context, it made lots of sense. Of course, it makes sense for everybody.
[00:10:00] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah. So there’s definitely scope and plans to, to develop into that place.
Fiona Kelleher: Completely. Yeah.
Geraldine Hennessy: Great. Okay. And schools, they seem like a great place to have a system like Michael in terms of dealing with both their own food waste, but also as an educational tool.Do you have any plans on developing more into this space?
[00:10:16] Fiona Kelleher: Yeah, we have. We’ve already got it in a couple of schools in West Cork and they’re having great fun with it at the moment. So I suppose the idea in schools is that you do work with schools in order to embed the technology. I think it’s fine for us to be introducing the innovation, but what’s really going to make it established and embedded, I suppose, in our heads as something, as a no brainer and a go to, as a solution, is the next generation.
And the only way you’re going to do that is by introducing it in that educational context. And already we’re seeing, you know, great things coming out, like people say, okay, so how much energy does a banana skin generate? Or, you know, what can you do with your sweets that are left over, your crisps, all that kind of stuff, which you wouldn’t say is the healthy living plan, but they can go in and create plenty of energy.
Within the schools as well, you’re looking at, you know, collaborations with the home economics department, with biology, with ag-science, with science courses, with… gardening and permaculture and also it encourages schools to start looking at creating their own food, at growing food. Yes. So resurrecting the raised beds, looking at polytunnels, using the fertilizer to its full value.
So it’s creating, by virtue of its existence, the ability to tap into all of those areas of potential for education for the students. In the schools that they’re in at the moment, there is a plan to develop work and case studies with the TY, where there’s plenty of scope for developing of that. So they’ll manage the system, you know, they’ll go in, they’ll put the food waste in and then, you know, they’ll cook the pancakes with the biogas later and whatever it might be, but you’ll have energy created and they’ll be learning that practically, which is the best way to learn.
[00:11:46] Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah. Yeah. Very good. And given the environmental crisis, do you feel that there’s enough being done at a governmental and EU level to encourage businesses produce environmentally friendly products, I suppose, firstly, and customers to switch to a more greener approach?
[00:12:02] Fiona Kelleher: Well, that’s an ongoing conversation, as we know.
You know, we’d love to see more incentives from government to allow people. Like it’s great to see the new incentives for solar panels where the VAT is now, you know, excluded as a cost for the customers. And of course you have retrofit grants and everything from SEAI. So we have ongoing live conversations about that with government.
And we’re hoping that MyGug can be included as a possible solution for people at that level, because incentivizing means that people will have to take up, because obviously, with costs of living pressures and there is a crisis. You know, sometimes it’s hard for people to make sense of the cost because there is a payback term similar to any renewable technology.
And, you know, we’d love to see that happening. It’s happening all over the world and we see now is the time in the next budget. To be putting the pressure on to get government to look at this seriously and say, look, this is number one, it’s a no brainer for people to, you know, increase our sustainability credentials as a country.
Look how far behind we are and how we’re lagging behind. These are ways in which you can easily incentivize people to do what they need to do and, you know, take the burden of the cost away in such a good way, in an effective way. It’s so meaningful. I think it would make a big difference. Hopefully, we’re on that train and the conversations are live, so watch the space.
[00:13:18] Geraldine Hennessy: And I think too, like customers, if they get an incentive, it makes such a big difference. It mightn’t have to be a massive incentive, but even if it’s something, you know, just to kind of encourage, I think, good practice in how we deal with their waste.
[00:13:29] Fiona Kelleher: Yeah, yeah. And there’s no doubt. And as you say, it doesn’t have to be a big incentive, but a little means a lot to people when they’re trying to make sense of a cost, especially when it’s a capital cost that they need to look at.
There’s no doubt that makes a difference. Hopefully, the tide will turn soon with that.
[00:13:45] Geraldine Hennessy: And what is, you mentioned it there, what is the expected payback period for a system like MyGug?
[00:13:50] Fiona Kelleher: So, for the commercial systems, anywhere between five and seven years, which is not bad. For the domestic system, at the moment, it’s more, simply because domestic contexts are using less, you know, so it’s always about like if you’re producing more, you’ll get a quicker payback is the kind of, and it’s the same with solar panels and with any other kind of technology like that.
But again, that’s where the incentives come into place. So between five and seven for commercial business, which is grand, and what you do is, I suppose for businesses, what we’re saying is look at your food waste bill, look at your energy bill, look at any transport problems you have, look at the energy that’s being used to store the food, if you’re growing food.
What are you paying out for high quality fertilizer? If you’re not growing food, it’s an excellent soil amendment for landscape gardens or flowerbeds or anything like that. So any fertilizer, that cost is negated straight away. So you’re eliminating costs and you’re creating energy and you can do quick tot up and see what that’s costing you per month and work out a payback on that basis.
[00:14:45] Geraldine Hennessy: And also like the positives from a reputation point of view, like.
[00:14:49] Fiona Kelleher: Quite right. And that’s actually hitting the nail on the head because from the reputation point of view, we all know we go to restaurants now and without even realizing, we’re thinking about where the food is coming from. We don’t want the broccoli from Morocco.We don’t want the sweet pea from Kenya. As good as they are, they’ve travelled too far. We shouldn’t be eating food from those places. We should have our own food security here. And Ireland is a fantastic country to grow food in. So, really, we’re all looking for that. If you’re saying, oh, you know, we’ve got this local produce and we’re growing it, like, immediately you feel like you’re eating something really healthy and nutritious.
And that’s important. So, we’re feeding right into that and I’m hoping that more people will take that on as a challenge.
[00:15:25] Geraldine Hennessy: And people generally are happy to pay that little bit extra for that. So, you know….
[00:15:30] Fiona Kelleher: Yeah, yeah. And customer approval is huge for food business. Yeah. And I think in schools it’s the same thing. If your school canteen or your school food service is looking at growing their own food and providing a healthy meal plan based on growing food, nothing could be more exciting. You know, both for the students and for parents. I mean, there’s massive approval there for that.
[00:15:47] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. And as a company, you’ve received a lot of recognition in terms of awards. For example, this year you won the AIB and Yield Lab Agtech Startup for 2023. How important are such awards to raise the awareness of the company?
[00:16:01] Fiona Kelleher: Those awards are kind of key, I suppose, in startup business and with entrepreneurs coming on the scene, small companies, SMEs and so on, because it just gives you an extra boost in terms of public profile. And that can be really good both from the point of view of discovering new customers.
But also from the point of view of establishing the technology. It is something that can be endorsed. So for us, with that award, for instance, it was great. We got loads of press feedback as well, which really bounced the awareness for us in terms of like email inquiries and all that kind of thing and did lead to new business.
But also it’s the endorsement, I think, which is really, really important, you know, that’s really, really good. So. It’s hard not to value that. I think it’s great when it happens. It’s not essential to your business, but it really is very nice when it happens. And we’re lucky, I think, in this country, both at a county level and a country level, there’s all sorts of ways in which, um, SMEs and small businesses are, you know, allowed to kind of enter all sorts of competitions.
If it’s, you know, content creation or whether it’s, you know, sustainability credentials or whatever, and we feed into all of that, but it’s lovely to see businesses getting that recognition. It helps a lot.
[00:17:04] Geraldine Hennessy: And I suppose it must be feel good for you as well, you know, like you’re definitely on the right track if you’re winning awards like that.
[00:17:08] Fiona Kelleher: Absolutely. It’s great. It gives us a bit of encouragement. Yeah. In those moments where you’re thinking, what am I doing? It helps.
[00:17:15] Geraldine Hennessy: Exactly. And what are your future plans?
[00:17:19] Fiona Kelleher: Yeah. So, I mean, plans really are to look at the market here in Ireland, the UK and Northern Ireland as well as our first kind of point of stop.
We want to be close to our customers. We want to help them in this first year of the business you know, we hold their hands and help them to really establish the technology in their businesses or in their schools. So that’s really important to be kind of close by. Further plans would be to go into Europe, certainly, and maybe establish partnerships in that regard, like strategic partners that can help us get into those markets.
But that would be more about partnerships than trying to be shipping loads of goods overseas, which is totally against what we want to do, you know, in terms of the bigger climactic impact and we want to make a difference ultimately.
[00:17:57] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Yeah. Very good. And how do you plan to scale your business while maintaining its environmental focus?You touched on it there. So partnership as …
[00:18:04] Fiona Kelleher: Partnerships as opposed to creating kind of shipping lines and transport, you know, having burdens like that and also looking at creative ways to look at partners who might be doing other things. let’s say in the growing side of things with like the fertilizer and the gardening, looking at encouraging more businesses to take that on and do it through partnerships, like looking at possible new technologies in that area that might be harnessed, like look at vertical farming, for instance, which is a really good model for urban farming.
And that’s happening a lot. It’s happening a lot here now. But in Germany, for instance, in Berlin, they have a great ecosystem there with urban farming. And we actually have a unit there where they’re testing it and they’re looking at the fertilizer as a really good nutrient for vertical farming. So it takes away the need for having the soil or the dry, um, amendment, you have a liquid which is really suitable for that.
So there’s lots of collaborations in the future I see as being important to really embed the food security for urban settings. Because in an urban setting, obviously you’re limited in terms of the growing, but that shouldn’t be. Yeah. If we’re doing our job properly, if we’re trying to embed local food security.
[00:19:07] Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. So. Okay. And as a company with serious green credentials, what has been the biggest challenge you face?
[00:19:12] Fiona Kelleher: Um. Um. I think that back to that question of innovation and knowledge and establishing the technology, it’s a long runway, but we’re kind of getting there now. It’s been, and I suppose as the conversation has turned more towards climate urgency, that’s been supportive of us because it’s allowed people to make sense of what we’re offering.
So we’re seeing definitely an upsurge in terms of appetite for the product or inquiries and all that kind of thing. So that challenge of trying to be in the marketplace where people don’t really understand what you’re doing and maybe don’t see the sense in it, that’s a difficult place to be. But that tide has definitely turned in the last 12 months or so.
And even in the last six months we’ve seen, and it is a one way street, this conversation isn’t going away and people are looking for solutions. So hopefully we can be part of that and provide meaningful change, which ultimately is the goal. That is the goal to just see food waste coming down and energy costs coming down using this technology for our users.
[00:20:10] Geraldine Hennessy:
And if you had any advice for a person thinking of setting up a start-up in the green industry, what would it be?
[00:20:16] Fiona Kelleher: I suppose it would be whatever your ambition or your passion is, stick with it. Persistence is key. Yeah. Really. If you have an idea and you are absolutely convinced that it’s going to work, then keep with it, persist, and also reach out.
We have such a fantastic ecosystem for enterprise in this country and in Cork County alone. I mean, between the Leo Cork Northwest based here, who gave us fantastic support, you have Cork Chamber. You have Cork BIC, you have Enterprise Ireland, you have lots of really good governmental agencies and state agencies that have highly skilled people and that have money for funding and opportunities for you to apply for funding and also will really help you build your business case.
So yeah, persistence, get up in the morning and just keep trying and reach out, reach out to people, reach out to other businesses and it’s amazing. Not only the state agencies are good, but also other businesses are great. The minute you reach out, they’re saying, how can I help you? Yeah. What can I do for you if you reach out to somebody else?
So it’s well worth doing.
[00:21:13] Geraldine Hennessy: That’s a very positive thing to say and a very positive note to end the podcast. So thank you so much, Fiona, for taking the time to talk to us on the Cork Creative podcast.
Fiona Kelleher: A pleasure. Thank you.
Geraldine Hennessy: If you’d like to learn more about MyGug, you can find links to their website and socials on corkcreative.ie.