by Avril Copeland @AvrilC /TickerFit

FRom Darkness to Light and all the dots in between:

Shining a light on entrepreneurship…

It was 3.10am in the morning and my Uber had just left. I was standing alone in the visitors car park of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was dark, however the bright lights of the bridge shone far enough to light the windy path up to the lookout. As the sight of the bridge unfolded before me, a wave of immense pride and exhilaration took hold.

As my potentially, over inspired Facebook friends will know, I’m a big fan of inspirational quotes. My most favourite is by Steve Jobs, “Connecting the Dots”:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.
- Steve Jobs

I left a convent girls school in the 90s, moved to Nashville to work in the country music industry, studied exercise science and physiotherapy, worked in a hospital, to now being a founder and CEO of a digital healthcare company. As someone who has taken a more unconventional path, not only do I like this quote, standing there looking out over the bay, in that moment, never was there a more apt quote that represented my life.

February 2016

Three months previous, I had received an email to say I was being referred by Dogpatch Labs in Dublin, to interview and pitch for a place on the Google For Entrepreneur’s blackbox Programme. This is a two week fully funded, immersive programme in San Francisco that gives selected founders the chance to learn from some of the wisest minds in the US about building and scaling a business. This year, blackbox was running its second female founder programme and was selecting 15 founders from around the world to take part in the programme run by the inspirational, Fadi Bishara.

Google is world renowned for the quality and effort they put into supporting entrepreneurs. On the same day I did my interview for blackbox, a second Google programme, the Google Digital Health Exchange was announced and made an appearance on my Twitter feed. I clicked the link and amazingly, this year it was going to be held in none other then my second home, Nashville, Tennessee, where I had spent seven of the best years of my life. Coincidently, the programme was due to be held the week after blackbox.

I awaited the ping of my inbox for the outcome of both the blackbox programme and the Digital Health Exchange programme selections. My cofounder, Greg Balmer was ever supportive. While if selected it meant that I would be away for nearly a month, both Greg and I knew that it would ultimately be of huge benefit to the business.

The emails came within days of each other, with the news that we had been chosen for both programmes. It was an exciting few days, as flights were booked and plans were made.

Darkness Into Light

In 2009 I was asked to be part of a committee for Pieta House, the suicide and self harm intervention charity in Dublin. Pieta House are an incredible organisation founded by the equally incredible, Joan Freeman. Joan and Pieta House were putting a committee in place to organise a 5k walk/run event which would be called Darkness Into Light.

Darkness Into Light starts at 4am in the morning and participants finish just as the sun rises. It is a symbolic event showing all those in darkness, that the light will soon come. At our very first event in May 2009, 400 participants walked and ran the 5 km in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. We gave out home made certificates to all the participants and used my mother’s garden canopies as registration ‘tents’. It was grassroots to say the least.

Since then, the people of Ireland have taken this event and cause and grown it into perhaps what is one of the most successful charity events that has ever been. In a solemn display of solidarity, every May, hundreds of thousands of people, from Dublin to Dubai and from Tipperary to Taiwan, turn up at 4am in the morning to make a united stand against suicide. This year there were over 100 venues around the world.

Like everyone, I have had proud moments in my life. Graduating from college, representing Ireland in sport, however, being involved and starting Darkness Into Light with Pieta House and my fellow committee members, has definitely given me the most joy. Knowing this year if successful with blackbox I would miss the event, made our success with the programmes somewhat bittersweet.

A few days before I was to inform my fellow committee members that I would be missing DIL, in yet another twist of fate, it was announced that this year, San Francisco would hold its very first Darkness Into Light which would take place at the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course the dots connected yet again. Darkness Into Light San Francisco would take place May 7th. I would start blackbox on May 8th, and then on May 21st I would fly to Nashville to begin the Digital Health Exchange. Somehow all of these events lined up perfectly, one after the other.

San Francisco

On May 5th, I flew to San Francisco. The morning of May 7th, I got an Uber to the Golden Gate Bridge Visitors Centre. I was early and got there before everyone arrived. Standing there looking out over the bay, the enormity of the occasion overwhelmed me. How had all the stars aligned to make it possible for me to be there on this momentous morning? As Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots going forward, you can only connect them going back. In that moment, every decision I had made, no matter how hard or crazy it seemed to many, somehow made this trip and this moment possible. More importantly, this moment somehow made all those decisions that had come before it, make sense.

Like they did on that May morning all those years ago, the Irish rose early from their beds and made their way to the bridge for the very first Darkness Into Light San Francisco. With everyone registered, the event was kicked off by dedicated race director, Claire Eades Christian. With ever step, the Irish turned a bridge normally known for such sorrow and tragedy, into a beacon of hope. It was awe inspiring to see the sea of yellow cross the bridge. I know DIL San Francisco will grow year on year, helping all those in darkness, see the light.


The next day I made my way toThe Fact0ry, the house I would eat, sleep and work in for the next two weeks. Greeted by my friend and one of Ireland’s best entrepreneurs Leonora O’Brien, I was shown my room and given a tour of the house/mansion. For anyone born before the mid — 80s, you may remember “The Real World San Francisco”. This is the best way to imagine the house. It was a stunning, somewhat quirky mansion in the Alamo Square Historic District of San Francisco. While on the surface it appeared to be a regular building, kitchen, dining room, bathrooms, bedrooms. Underneath, it possessed a magical quality which seemed to facilitate collaboration, deep connection and inspiration. It provided an environment which made the experience at blackbox so utterly incredible, and possibly indescribable.

My housemates were a group of formidable women from as far away as China. While English wasn’t everyone’s first language, the blackbox experience somehow made that irrelevant. These two weeks were some of the most memorable, inspiration filled and empowering (note: I think this word is over used, however, taking liberties) weeks I possibly have ever experienced. Each day the greatest and most innovative minds in California traveled to meet us at our house and share their wisdom in our living room. Fireside chats every day in the comfort of our ‘home’. People like Keith Teare from TechCruch & Archimedes Labs, Sharon Vosmek from AstiaJenny Lefcourt from Freestyle VC, Etienne DeffargesAnn Winblad from HWVP, all came to learn about our businesses, give us feedback and then share their thoughts and their journeys.

While we spent most days at The Fact0ry, we also took day trips…. day trips money can’t buy. At Google we got to hear from people like Gretchen Howard from Google Capital and Ching-Yu Hu from Skybox whose company was acquired by Google (warning: majorly inspiring story). After the best buffet lunch, we had an enlightening afternoon of mentorship by the Google Launchpad Team.

On another afternoon we were given a VIP tour of Eventbrite, followed by a questions and answers session with Julia Hartz, the founder and force behind Eventbrite. As if that wasn’t enough, our evening was spent at Bloomingdales listening to Jessica Herrin speak about her new book, her startup journey with the Wedding Channel and now her super successful company, Stella and Dot.

As the two weeks drew to a close, we all said our farewells. It was sad to be saying goodbye to what will be life long friends, but it was also exciting getting home to implement and to share what we had learned through the experience. A huge thank you to Fadi, Ana, Sanita, MacKenzie, Jacob, Bill and all the incredibly inspiring women who are making such a dent…… (FYI: coining the phrase #makeadent #makingadent :)

blackbox Connect #15

Click here to view the companies that were selected:

Google for Entrepreneurs Digital Health Exchange

OnSaturday the 21st, I flew to my second home, Nashville, Tennessee. Having spent seven years working in music, it was a great feeling returning to be part of Nashville’s other leading industry, healthcare. On Sunday 22nd the eight selected teams met at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. It was wonderful to finally get the opportunity to see and tour Nashville’s beautiful Entrepreneur Centre. An incredible environment, purpose built to inspire and invoke innovation.

The eight teams consisted of healthcare innovators from across the US and South America who were building companies to make real impact. Products included devices which stop IV dislodgement, a new breast cancer screening test and a digital health application which allows caregivers communicate and collaborate around their loved one’s care. They were all inspiring start-ups and equally inspiring teams.

The team at the Entrepreneur’s Centre managed to get some of the most senior influencers in not only Nashville’s healthcare industry, but in the US healthcare industry to come to the centre and meet us and share their knowledge. We had speakers from people like David Guth, CEO of Centerstone, Ed Cantwell from the Center for Medical InteroperabilitySean Sheppard from GrowthX, along with practical advisor sessions, where teams of industry leaders sat in rooms with us for hours, and helped us navigate different challenges.

One highlight was an evening spent at the Nashville Convention Centre. It was such an honour to meet the Commissioner of Health for Tennessee, Dr. John Dreyzehner, his wife Jana and the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic Growth and Community DevelopmentRandy Boyd. Dr. John Dreyzehner is definitely one of the most innovative leaders and thinkers in health that I have ever met.

The networking, knowledge and experience we gained during that week would have otherwise taken years to acquire. A truly incredible, fruitful and enlightening experience. We got to see all the highlights of Nashville and learn from the very best in the business. Thanks to the Nashville Entrepreneur Centre team, Kelli, Maggie, Heather, Sam, Jeremy, John and Julia for doing such an incredible job, and of course my peers on the programme for making it so enjoyable.

Photo by Nashville Entrepreneur Center

Companies at the Digital Health Exchange: Adrastia BiotechnologyLineGard MedTickerFitCare AdvisorHuli Health,Homeward HealthcareCarely,ScriptDrop

It has taken a few weeks for everything to sink in. How did everything align so perfectly? I got to be part of the very first Darkness Into Light San Francisco, share three inspiring weeks with some of the best entrepreneurs in the world, learning from the brightest minds, and of course, visit one of my most favourite places, Nashville, Tennessee.

One of my good friends once described our hearts as a puzzle. That every piece to complete the puzzle is out there on the road ahead. That road curves and bends, v’s and sometimes even dead ends. Those pieces are scattered, some flipped upside down, some visible from the road and some hidden. The road is lined with exits which invite us to turn off at any stage. While it can be much easier to pull over and take the exit, it is so much more worthwhile to keep moving forward, watching the pieces of the puzzle come together and fill the gaps. Eventually the picture will be complete. As for now, I’m still on the road, a few missing pieces still drawing me forward.

(Thanks Emilie Hester)


Ahuge thank you to Mary Grove & Genna McKeel from Google For Entrepreneurs, Liz McCarthy & Patrick Walsh from Dogpatch Labs, Google Ireland, blackbox, the Nashville Entrepreneurs Centre, Pieta House for all their incredible work and most importantly my wonderful Cofounder Greg Balmer who keeps it all going :)