MS gave Conor food for thought
Margaret Roddy talks to Young Entrepreneur finalist Conor Kerley about how an MS diagnosis at 16 changed his life and future career path
Conor Kerley was a promising young sportsman when he was diagnosed with Multiple Scerolsis at 16 years of age. It was a diagnosis which changed his life and has put him on the path of entrepreneurship health and nutrition.
Sport was everything to him in his early years. A keen basketball player, he had earned a place on the Dundalk under 16 team when he was just 11 and remembers the excitement of his picture appearing in The Argus when the team competed in Scotland. It was his love of basketball which led to him choosing to go to The Marist, as the school had an excellent reputation for promoting the sport. He also played Gaelic with The Clans and soccer with Rangers. But all this was to change suddenly when he became ill during the Christmas holidays in 2002, losing his physical strength. It took some months and a further attack before he was finally given a diagnosis.
'I was at school doing my Junior Cert year when I became gravely ill and was diagnosed with MS,' he recalls. 'It was really young, especially in a male.'
'It shifted my focus from wanting to be a professional athlete to getting healthy. I had to learn how to walk, how to tie my shoelaces again which gave me a certain resilience and spirit to get out there.'
Conor feels that these qualities are now standing to him as he focuses on developing wholefood plant-based supplements nutrition products which he believes will make a huge impact on how a number of medical conditions are treated.
'Starting in business is hard but so am I,' he says. 'I've had over my half my life with MS and it's all under control for over 16 years.'
Right from the start of his illness, he began research how food and nutrition could help him manage his MS, getting books out of the library which sparked his passion in investigating the role which food and diet can play in managing his symptoms.
He had taken science subjects at The Marist, where he remembers Ger Lyons as being 'a brilliant chemistry teacher', and decided to go to Trinity College Dublin after his Leaving Cert, studying human nutrition and dietetics, before completing a PhD in Human Nutrition at the School of Medicine and Medical Science at University College Dublin.
This launched him on a career of scientific research as he believes that diet and nutrition can play a major role in controlling many illnesses including MS, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Having changed his own lifestyle and diet, Conor is now symptom-free, relapse-free, medication-free and still plays sports.
He completed his post doctoral work with The School of Human Health and Performance at Dublin City University and was head hunted to work in a medical centre in Washington DC.
Conor has published numerous articles in scientific and medical journals, has presented his results at conferences worldwide, and has won many prestigious national and international prizes, as well as attracting funding for his research work.
He was invited to Australia to present his work on blood pressure management, but rather than being wooed by the vast country, he decided to return home to Dundalk and concentrate on looking at ways of helping millions of people with diabetes.
'I came back from Australia to a lecturing role in DIT, now the Technology University of Dublin, and worked there for about a year, lecturing full-time.'
However, in order to be able to devote himself entirely to his own research, he decided to quit that post and concentrated on developing plant based products which can be used to help control or even prevent a number of illnesses and conditions.
One of the first things he did was to attend a Start Your Own Business course run by Louth Local Enterprise Office in Creative Spark, Muirhevnamor.
Conor is being supported by the Louth Local Enterprise office and won the Louth and subsequently entire North East regions of National Final of Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur. He recently took part in and which led to him being selected to represent Louth in the National Final of Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur.
And although he didn't win the overall prize, he says that the experience has helped him in the process of bringing what promises to be revolutionary wholefood plant-based supplements to the market place.
While there a lot of food products and supplements on the shelves, Conor says that the vast majority have no scientific basis to back up the claims being made for them.
His, however, are being developed after nine years of study and research and have already attracted interest from fellow experts and the health profession.
The nutrition product that Conor has developed lowers blood sugar, inflammation and fats like cholesterol, helping to prevent and treat disorders such as diabetes.
'The fact that it's natural and safe is a big bonus,' he says.
As obesity levels increase so too does the number of people suffering from diabetes, making it one of the big challenges facing healthcare providers not just in Ireland but in many developed countries.
Figures released by the Central Statistics Office in January revealed that almost two-thirds of the Irish population (62%) were overweight or obese in 2017, compared with 60% in 2015.
And the story is being replicated around the world, with 10 per cent of the population now having diabetes, placing a huge burden on healthcare providers.
The cost of this explosion is huge, not just for health services but also for the individuals themselves, not just in terms of their health and welfare, but also financially. In America, there has been a growing number of cases of diabetics who have died because they haven't been able to afford to buy the insulin which they needed.
His product will help those with type 2 diabetes and those at risk of developing diabetes to keep their blood sugars under control.
It will be available in both capsule and powder form in a range of natural flavours, making it easy for people to take.
This product is currently being tested before being released on the market and Conor says it should help people with type 2 diabetes reduce the amount of insulin they need to take and will also play a huge role in prevention.
Conor hopes that the product will eventually be manufactured in Ireland, perhaps even Louth, with the added bonus of job creation.
He is also working on developing another food supplement which would help reduce blood pressure and will be going to Britain to address the British Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation later this month.
The final product which he hopes to develop, and the one closest to his heart, will help improve brain health, potentially benefiting those with MS but also Parkinsons, dementia, etc.
Now living in Ashbourne, Conor is a regular visitor to Dundalk, where his parents Arthur and Josephine Kerley still live in Oliver Plunkett Park.
Like many of his generation, he uses social media as a way of reaching the public and can be found on Facebook, and Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.