Gabrielle Feenan: From UU graduate to sustainable entrepreneur

Gabrielle Feenan, an Ulster University graduate in Product Design shares her story on how university helped her become a successful entrepreneur.

03 Nov 2021   25 min read

overlay graphic Gabrielle Feenan: From UU graduate to sustainable entrepreneur

BA Hons Product Design

For as long as I can remember I have always been involved in design and problem-solving having studied Technology & Design throughout my time in school. As well as taking my projects to competition at national level, the BA Hons Product Design course was the perfect next step into developing and refining my skills to become a multidisciplinary designer and entrepreneur.

Beginning my undergraduate in 2018 I was very quickly exposed to a world of opportunity available for the taking as an Ulster student. The very nature of my course being so dynamic, and innovation driven this was everything I needed to expand my skillset and to develop creative solutions to real world problems.

Throughout my degree one of my favourite aspects was the diversity within the projects and the ability to explore a plethora of design disciplines, with my own projects ranging from CNC Furniture, Design for Agriculture, Design for ASD Patients to my final year project of Sustainable Furniture.  The combination of this alongside the consistent encouragement and guidance from my lecturers has now allowed me to become an entrepreneur at the age of 21.

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With Product Design having a smaller course cohort of around 20 students this meant each student receives dedicated feedback consistently throughout the year, without this help and support I can easily say my projects wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful as they have been.

This also allowed for a close-knit community within the course and made for a familial atmosphere within the studio spaces which is not often found in many other universities. The course team itself offers an abundance of experience from a variety of backgrounds who are sure to guide and advise you along the way.

Design & Engineering Competitions

Since GCSE level I have been keen to enter national Design & Engineering competitions which I gained invaluable experience, opportunities and contacts. Namely, the Big Bang Science & Engineering fair that I was named a finalist at on two occasions which lead me to receiving an apprenticeship with a modern livery company in London – The Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers – for my Digital Anemometer project becoming their first Northern Irish apprentice. This was following being named as Sentinus’ Intermediate Young Engineer for Northern Ireland 2016 for my GCSE Technology project.

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Heading into my final year last September I decided I wanted to focus my major project around the theme of sustainability, yet also wanting to take this as an opportunity to challenge myself. After lots of research I stumbled upon the issue of Furniture Waste within the UK and the lack of existing solutions to an area crying out for resolve. Having investigated the reasons why we throw away over 22 million tonnes of furniture annually in the UK, I developed my own business ‘Korkki’.

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Korkki aims to re-ignite emotional attachment into modern furniture whilst remaining sustainable from concept to manufacture. Korkki takes infamous Northern Ireland landmarks and replicates these into functional furniture through cork and glass. The material and manufacturing choices allow for minimal environmental impact, whilst also offering a bespoke and stylish alternative to modern furniture.

Student INVENT competition

Having graduated in July 2021, I decided to enter Korkki into Catalyst NI’s Student INVENT competition, wherein I pitched my business to a panel of judges showcasing my Slieve Donard prototype table as well as the benefits of cork as a material choice. I was selected as the Student INVENT winner 2021 – a truly surreal experience that has sent me well on my way to starting my own furniture company in the near future. Throughout my INVENT experience I liaised with UUSU Enterprise centre who were able to guide me to suitable opportunities for grants and programmes to expand and develop my business.

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Words of Advice

My words of advice would be to make the most of every opportunity presented to you, the contacts and experiences you will gain are absolutely invaluable, anything else you get from it is a bonus. As well as that invest in yourself from the start, whether that be your time or other resources it will always pay off in the long run. My experience at Ulster has been nothing but positive with a warm & welcoming community helping me along every step of the way, and I’d encourage anyone to choose Ulster if not for the fantastic range of courses on offer then for the people you’ll meet.

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