Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest 
Kerry O'Donnelly and Angela de Manzanos
Kerry O’Donnelly

Kerry is a PhD student at Imperial College London who co-created FungiAlert, a device that alerts farmers to crop disease.

A passion for using chemistry to help humanity

Kerry O'DonnellyIt was Kerry’s enthusiastic secondary school teacher who inspired her to study chemistry. At university, she realised what she loved most about the subject was knowing she could have a career that directly improved people’s lives.

Enjoying applying her chemistry background to biological problems, Kerry went on to study for a PhD at the Institute of Chemical Biology (a doctoral training centre at Imperial College), focusing her research on using chemical tools to help increase global food production.

Four years ago, whilst working in the same lab, Kerry struck up a friendship with co-worker Angela de Manzanos who shared her passion for increasing food production. When their department ran a Dragon’s Den style entrepreneurial competition, they decided to enter as a team. Their design was an early detection device for plant disease – FungiAlert. 

“We wanted to design a product that would help to increase food production, and after learning that ‘if global crop losses were reduced by even 1%, then 24 million people could eat tonight’, we focused our idea on technology to help farmers reduce crop losses.” 

FungiAlert and support for female entrepreneurs

FungiAlert is a low-cost device which is inserted into the soil and alerts the user to the risk of fungal spores before they infect the crop. “You can look at it as a smoke alarm for farmers – it alerts you to the problem before it destroys everything,” says Kerry. 

Kerry and Angela have been supported by the Althea-Imperial Programme – an initiative run by Imperial College, designed to help female students develop their entrepreneurial skills. Kerry describes it as a truly inspiring programme that has given her the opportunity to interact with a vast network of female businesswomen.  

“Through tailored sessions and workshops, we were supported through the development of our ideas, and were also able to hear the stories and experiences of many influential female entrepreneurs.”

Although Kerry has found doing a PhD while running a company challenging, she thinks that both a supportive supervisor and the positive environment for start-ups at Imperial has allowed her to balance the two well. She advises other aspiring entrepreneurs to get involved in entrepreneurial competitions, saying these have taught her invaluable business and customer development skills, as well as offering excellent networking opportunities.

“Through these networking sessions, Angela and I have had the opportunity to speak with some of the most influential decision makers in our industry, and been introduced to some of our biggest potential customers.” 

Suggestions that fewer women embark on entrepreneurial careers than men because they are less resilient was something which resonated with Kerry. And here, the Althea-Imperial Programme encouraged her to keep going and not give up. She thinks programmes like this are key to inspiring women who want to learn more about entrepreneurship, business and leadership.

The future for FungiAlert

Kerry O'Donnelly and Angela de Manzanos

“The development of FungiAlert has been an intense and steep learning curve, but this has only added to the enjoyment of running the company. We have truly loved being able to drive our project from idea and product development, to now having the opportunity to commercialise our invention.”

So far, FungiAlert has managed to raise money from three different entrepreneurial competitions at Imperial which will allow Kerry and Angela to work on their product full-time when they complete their PhDs later this year. “We are both very passionate about the future of FungiAlert, and although we know there may be setbacks, we are determined to overcome any hurdles we face in order to succeed,” says Kerry. 

They are currently in the process of applying for more funding and, if successful, will be able to undertake field trials and launch FungiAlert to market. Watch this space...

Words by Isobel Marr
Published July 2015

More faces...