Friday 23 August 2019

Pharma and biotech on fast track

Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium sized businesses and shares the lessons they've learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Dr Mark Barrett. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Dr Mark Barrett. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Most entrepreneurs around the world set up their businesses not just to make money but to make a difference. That's certainly what motivated Dr Mark Barrett and Professor Brian Glennon to set up pharmaceutical and biotech research and development firm APC Ltd.

Established in 2011 and located in Cherrywood Business Park, in south Dublin, the company employs 110 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €20m.

"Our business could be summed up as being like an innovative playground where science and technology meet," says Mark, the company's ceo. "We accelerate the development of modern medicines across areas as diverse as personalised oncology, Alzheimer's, HIV, hepatitis, cell therapy, and many other potentially life-threatening diseases. While people hear about how a new cure or miracle molecule has been discovered in a lab somewhere in the world, our job is to convert these into market-ready medicines for patients," he adds.

Some of the company's recent collaborations have resulted in reducing the time to market for medicines from four and five years to just 12 months. In a multi-billion dollar market globally, this can help deliver significant value to companies, but more importantly to patients where getting access to such new therapies can literally mean the difference between life and death.

While the company's offices are among the most modern and best designed I have seen, it is in their high-tech laboratories where the magic really happens. Here teams of scientists and engineers, decked out in their customary white coats and eye googles, are busy at work.

Mark says: "80pc of our team are PhD qualified. We have 21 different nationalities represented in the business and they combine to create an energy and a dynamic that is unequalled in this sector. It is this culture that allows us to do such special things."

APC's clients are largely manufacturing companies, including eight of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies globally and five of the top 10 biotech companies where their work straddles the areas of discovery, research and manufacturing. And 85pc of revenues come from international markets, 50pc from the US, 30pc from the EU and 5pc from Asia. It is an astonishing achievement for the founders in such a short space of time.

Mark Barrett grew up in Killiney in Dublin, where his father ran his own publishing company.

"I remember how hard he had to graft through difficult times and how creative he had to be to survive. I remember delivering papers for him and ringing up customers to sell ad space. I never really thought about it much at the time, but, reflecting back, my dad was a big influence on me," admits Mark.

Mark's other passion was rugby. As a former Seapoint rugby club captain and through his involvement with Leinster juniors rugby, he believes the game has given him an insight into the power of culture and the importance of teamwork. Having completed a PhD in Chemical Engineering in UCD, he was invited to do a research internship in NASA, in Florida. Inspired by his mentor, a chemical engineer and a two-time astronaut, Mark began to realise that he wanted to work on science projects that would have a significant impact in the world.

He later got a job with global healthcare firm Merck and while it was an amazing experience, he was struck by the amount of time and cost it took to develop new therapies.

"That was my lightbulb moment. I decided then that I wanted to help patients to get access to these treatments sooner," says Mark.

Teaming up with Brian Glennon, professor of chemical and bioprocess engineering in UCD, the pair set up APC. He can remember getting a call out of the blue in 2011, from one of the most senior people in the pharmaceutical industry in the US.

The man was working on the development of an infectious disease medicine and had heard that Mark and Brian might be able to help bring it to market more quickly. So he reached out to them. At the time the pair had no product, no team and no real business plan.

"He told us he had a slot in his schedule in 36 hours, and asked if that would suit," recounts Mark. "I remember us jumping on the next flight to the US and spending the next eight hours trying to figure out how we were going to sell ourselves. The next day we left with our first contract.

"We then spent the flight home trying to figure out how to deliver on the vision we had just pitched. That was the day I became an entrepreneur," says Mark. "Now six years later, we employ 110 staff and have a turnover of €20m. And all without external investment. No seed rounds of funding and no venture capital," he adds.

The first 18 months were challenging. Mark realised then that he and Brian had to let go of the need to do everything themselves and instead start allowing their expanding team drive important aspects of the business.

"As an entrepreneur you have to walk an infinitely narrow tightrope trying to balance everything from marketing and finance to investment and growth.

"It was like a 'sphere of anxiety'' until you realise there are no perfect decisions just a belief in your vision, your team and your culture. That journey for both myself and Brian has been transformative and has enabled us to achieve double and treble digit growth, year on year," says Mark.

As he looks forward five years, he expects the company to more than double its revenues to €50m and to be employing a team of over 300 researchers, technology leaders and business professionals spread across centres in the US, Ireland and Singapore.

"We want to be to the fore in helping define the pharmaceutical research landscape of the future from gene-therapy and personalised oncology to new platforms in the treatment of Alzheimer's," says Mark.

"We both want to be able to look back in years to come and to be able to say we made a real difference in peoples' lives."

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