Sir Ken Robinson

3 days in Dubai – jumping in at my new startup’s deep end!


Day 1 on the stand, Leeann Monk-Ozgul, Mary McKenna, Jennifer Neff, Dr Ola Aldafrawy of Dubai Health Authority, Alastair Hamilton CEO Invest NI, Swathi Sri Invest NI

I announced a week ago today that I’ve begun the New Year with a bang by formally joining Northern Irish tech for good startup, Elemental Software.  I say “formally” because I’ve been the company’s mentor for the last 10 months via Northern Ireland’s excellent Propel programme.  For anyone else who’s old enough to remember the 1970s it’s been a bit like that old Remington ad with the smooth as silk American entrepreneur Victor Kiam… Joking aside I can thoroughly recommend working in a company as the best possible way to conduct due diligence prior to investment and would be interested to hear from any other angels who’ve done the same.


The three of us at one of the parties – oops – I mean networking events

Elemental’s co-founders are Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff & believe it or not they met through their mutual love of diagrams…which in my book is as good a way as any to identify a business partner. Both women have a strong track record in designing and managing community programmes and both have worked for many years in the tricky interface that exists between the private, public and third sectors. Even better, Jennifer and Leeann are both from Derry and it makes me very happy to continue supporting economic growth in the North West of Ireland by backing another local company that is without doubt destined for huge global success.  Indeed, the golden thread that links the three of us is no other than Sir Ken Robinson – yes – he of “schools kill creativity” TED fame.  Jennifer, Leeann and I were all at Sir Ken’s March 2011 talk in Derry but we didn’t know each other at the time.


Sir Ken Robinson in Derry with his mug on a mug

They saw me taking photos and wondered who I was and they loved his talk so much that they eventually based their company name on Sir Ken’s book “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” – far more sensible than what I did as a result of meeting him which was put his face on a mug (or should I say a cult collectible!).

Elemental provides an early to market digital solution that eases and addresses an escalating set of health related social challenges. Social prescribing is described as a way of linking patients in primary care with sources of support within the community. It’s as simple as that and it gives, for example, GPs a non-medical referral option that will run alongside existing treatments to improve a patient’s health and well-being.


Jennifer, Leeann & I with Ambassador Pat Hennessy, Irish Ambassador to UAE

This past week Jennifer, Leeann & I have been exhibiting at Arab Health in the World Trade Centre in Dubai.  Thank you to all those people who opened their black books for me and made introductions before our trip out there.  It was my first time visiting the Middle East on business and there was an awful lot to take in in a very short space of time.  Dubai itself is easily accessible from Ireland with 30 direct flights a week from Dublin and only a 4 hour time difference.  The city has the feel of a pioneer town and I can see why so many Irish and British people (young and old) are out there seeking their fortunes.


Jennifer and Leeann presenting to Nicola Blackwood MP at our stand

Arab Health in itself was an experience and a half.  Vast doesn’t come close with 40 country pavilions and 20,000 visitors a day.  We were lucky in so many ways.  We’d been selected to participate in the Invest Northern Ireland stand and as one of our co-founders, Jennifer Neff, has already been working with potential UAE clients for a couple of years she was able to line up days and days worth of useful meetings in advance.  We weren’t so lucky on the accommodation front. let us down badly by cancelling our booking on the day of our arrival in Dubai and it was incredibly difficult to find somewhere to stay at such short notice.  However, in the spirit of making lemonade from lemons we embraced the opportunity to stay for a few days in a more authentic part of the old town and see some sights we’d have otherwise missed.

Elemental is about to roll out the first social prescribing programme in the United Arab Emirates region, connecting key stakeholders in diabetes prevention and supporting patients most at risk to make better lifestyle choices, enhancing their quality of life and reducing demand on health services.


Three of us with Dr Mohammad

Being at Arab Health was an amazing chance for me as an investor and part time resource to meet some of our contacts face to face and to hear from them first hand how they love the simplicity of our platform and how they intend to use it.

We were also lucky to be selected as one of the UK companies that MP and Minister for Public Health and Innovation, Nicola Blackwood, requested to meet with when she was at Arab Health earlier this week. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to explain how our social prescribing platform will help improve people’s lives to someone who feels as passionately about social justice as Nicola does.

Around the edges of the conference we networked with our Irish business community friends and colleagues, attending a number of events including that hosted by His Excellency Ambassador Pat Hennessy, Irish Ambassador to UAE (and at which Irish Minister for Employment and Small Business Pat Breen TD and Dr Mohammad Abdulqader Al Redha of Dubai Health Authority spoke so well).


With Minister Pat Breen TD at the Enterprise Ireland networking event

Dr Mohammad is an alumni of the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and having spent 8 years in Dublin is truly an honorary Irishman.  It was great to also squeeze in an early morning healthcare focused business breakfast with the Dubai Irish Business Network, to manage to see our good friend Eithne Treanor a number of times over the course of a few days and to meet our friend Barry Lee Cummings who works with his Northern Irish counterpart Wayne Denner on a worthy mission to help young people better manage their online reputations and combat cyberbullying.


With Irish powerhouse Eithne Treanor at the Dubai IBN breakfast – if you only knew one person in Dubai but it was Eithne you’d be ok!

They say a week is a long time in politics but I can confirm it’s also a long time in a busy startup.  For anyone out there who’s seeking their own angel and wondering why I picked Elemental from all the hundreds of approaches I get these are the reasons I’d have given you if you’d asked me last Friday – awesome female founding team, growing social prescribing market, powerful product that’s also simple to use and understand and the fact that it’s tech for good.  A week later I would add – co-founders that are both great on their feet, deep customer and sector knowledge and a level of commitment and hard work I’ve never seen in another startup.  Keep your fingers crossed for us and watch our progress.  Life in a startup is never easy – even when everyone’s on message, working their butts off and the planets all seem to be aligned. Comments welcome as always.

Interested in learning more about the benefits of social prescribing? Read Dr Marcello Bertotti’s expert opinion piece here

Elemental participated during 2016 in the Propel programme funded by Invest Northern Ireland and driven by the magnificent Diane Roberts. Any startups wishing to join a current and excellent accelerator in Belfast should consider Diane’s new venture, Start Planet NI

Interested in having a conversation with Elemental Software, contact us via Jennifer at

Nature, Nurture or just plain hard graft…

Mary with John O'Conor

At the American Irish Foundation gala dinner in Washington DC last Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be seated next to one of Ireland’s cherished treasures – classical pianist, eternal optimist & the greatest living interpreter of Beethoven’s piano music, John O’Conor.  Sitting on my other side was John Nolan from Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  When he found out that I wasn’t aware of John’s fame (I know – I was excruciatingly embarrassed by my ignorance of classical music and its main players) he described John O’Conor as “being like a god that had stepped down from Olympus to grace us with his presence” – quite a big sell then – no pressure John!

I’d attended an “Unlocking Creativity” event in Derry earlier in March hosted by the magical Sir Ken Robinson and I’d been fascinated by the story that Ken had told us about Bart Conner, the American gymnast, and his journey to becoming a world class athlete and multi Olympic medal winner.  In a nutshell, Bart’s mother had noticed he had a talent for gymnastics when he was a very young boy & had enrolled him in a gym early doors rather than force him to continue with school and academic studies to the exclusion of all else.  That led to Bart being “spotted” by a coach when he was 10 and the rest is history.  This caused me to ask John about his own career journey as to be honest, becoming a world famous concert pianist is pretty unusual.  He told me that he was fortunate enough to have a mother that encouraged John & his sisters to try out many non academic things when they were children – so as a result John had learned tin whistle, elocution, singing, Irish dancing and the viola as well as the piano; his sisters learned the violin, cello and ballet.  Indeed, John O’Conor is quoted as saying the hardest part of achieving his music degree was the academic side – as all he really wanted to do was play his instrument.

This reminded me of another of Sir Ken’s stories when as a student in the 1970s he approached a guy playing keyboards in a pub band in Liverpool one night.  He said to the chap “I’d love to be able to do what you do” and the keyboard player said to him that if he’d love to do it that much, he’d be doing it too.  He went on to explain that he’d started playing when he was 5 years old, practiced 5 hours a day come hell or high water & gigged 6 nights a week.  Sir Ken’s point is that when you’re engaged in something that you love, it isn’t in fact work at all.

All this does of course link back to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in his book Outliers of the 10,000 hours a person needs to put in before they will be good at something – so when you’re choosing a career, you’d better be careful and pick something that you love or you’ll never be good enough at it.  Harsh but true.  I asked John O’Conor about the difference between good and great pianists and he said it’s practice – not magic or anything secret – it’s simply constant daily practice that makes you truly good at the thing you already love – and if you don’t love it enough, you won’t practice enough – and that’s the bottom line.  John says that the great pianists have never had to be told to practice – they just want to do it – all day every day.

I appreciate that the photo of us is a bit strange.  It’s because I wanted to photograph the great man’s hands…Thanks for your company in Washington John and John!

I confessed to John as the evening went on that my own piano teacher had taken my mother to one side after I’d been attending lessons for about 3 years and said “Mrs McKenna, you’re wasting your money here.  Don’t bring her back any more.”  He was right and it was lovely of him to be that honest with my poor mum who really couldn’t spare the money for the lessons, but wanted her daughters to learn more than academic stuff.

I know this is a topic that generates a lot of discussion so I can’t wait to read your comments.  Keep your stories coming – I love to read them.