Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur: Dr Ciara Clancy has always danced to the beat of her own drum
The determined physiotherapist-turned-businesswoman has already transformed the lives of Parkinson's patients all over the world with her inspired Beats Medical app. And she's still only 27...
Dr Ciara Clancy has been dancing since she was three.
And since even that early age, her whole life has been in or about movement - from helping others to become agile again to a constant moving towards a goal, a burning desire to always aspire to more. Her physique is that of a dancer: though slight, it belies a strength and determination that has found her at the head of one of Ireland's biggest technological and entrepreneurial success stories in recent years. Named Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur earlier this year, the 27-year-old has most recently been hailed as a Future Leader by the Women's Executive Network (WXN). But it was a passion for transforming the lives of others, not the desire to be in big business, that led her here.
Volunteering with a physiotherapist as a teenager had given her a passion for the practice, but it was particularly to the treatment of Parkinson's that she was drawn. "I don't know what it was, but from early on I loved volunteering and getting involved in the community - that's what brought me a lot of joy," she says. "What I liked about the physical therapy field in particular was that it was non-intrusive - it wasn't a drug, or a pill; it wasn't surgery. It was something you could do with your hands or with instruction that would have a real impact on people's lives. I just thought that was so powerful so I wanted to go down that road."
She won a scholarship to Trinity at age 17 and, as soon she as she was qualified as a chartered physiotherapist, began specialising in treating neurological conditions. Immediately, however, she felt that the treatment she was giving was not enough. "I just felt that I was falling short - that this wasn't what I pictured, that there was so much that could be done," she says. "I was seeing the impact of clinically proven treatments in hospitals that weren't available at home."
One moment became a turning point. "I was working in a hospital and my next patient, a person with Parkinson's, was 20 minutes late. I went out to find him stuck frozen at the main entrance of the hospital." The patient was coming in for metronome therapy, a process which replaces the brain signal that cues movement when it has become impaired by the disease. The treatment, delivered by an 'auditory cue system' - a sound that is played to the patient - has to be tailored daily, and so was only available in hospitals. "My patient needed this treatment at home, not just in hospital," Clancy says. "I wanted to see if we could pair metronome therapy with technology to give him the tools to take control and overcome symptoms on a daily basis."
What begun was a two-year journey to bring her vision to fruition. She partnered with a college friend and colleague, Dr Wui-Mei Chew - a medical doctor and researcher with a master's in intermolecular medicine - and began upskilling at breakneck speed. "What we were doing was quite complex so I went into research," Clancy says. "To do tailored individualised treatment, there's a lot of algorithms and analytics and processes that go into that, so I needed to build the skills to be able to implement that." The aim was to develop a programme that provided individually tailored metronome therapy - delivering the auditory cue or tailored beat to counteract the physical symptoms of Parkinson's daily - via a smartphone app.
Though basing their work on over 50 years of research, creating something that responded to individual needs was a massive ask. It required working with patients day in, day out, to test and retest the technology. Then, just as the project seemed to be struggling, fate intervened.
One of their earliest testers, 48-year-old John McPhee, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's two years before and was already was having issues with movement, decided to walk from the bottom of the UK to the top, using the technology Clancy had designed. His journey - which drew lots of media attention as well as being documented by blog - aimed to raise funds for Parkinson's nursing. "To be honest, I wasn't sure if it would be possible," Clancy recalls. "All I knew was that I wanted to support him."
She decided to join him for the last part of his journey, through his native Scotland. "Unfortunately, when I arrived he'd had a fall that morning and asked me to assess his wrist. As I did he whispered, 'If it's broken, we're telling no one. I'm finishing this walk.' At this stage he'd already travelled most of the length of the UK and his commitment still hadn't wavered. He had the end in sight and he wasn't about to let anything hold him back. It taught me the importance of keeping the bigger picture in mind, creating and visualising, as John called it, your 'future history'. His belief is that what you visualise, you can achieve, because your mind won't accept an alternative. He pushed me to explore what we were working and walking towards.
"It was just this tipping point," she continues, "where I realised, 'I've really got to turn this into a business now - it can't be just this project.' There was no point just treating 10 people who knew about my technology, because that would have been just the same as if I'd stayed in the hospital. So a successful business that would be scalable, impactful, as well as a social enterprise, was needed to make sure that this would have the impact that I wanted. That was when it started to take shape and really take off."
And so Beats Medical was born. She was just 24 - a time when most other people her age are just graduating from college, still living at home, and wondering the hell they are going to do for the rest of their lives. But Clancy, it seems, has never lived on average terms.
Her ambition, she says, is fuelled by the need that is out there, the constant motivator that there is still so much more to be done. "You make sacrifices when you really want something. It is full of ups and downs and there are huge risks you take around financial security, but what got me through everything was the effect the treatment had. It's a huge motivator -even back then - to get it off the ground. You had patients who'd come and test with you and had faith in you; it may not have worked that time but they'd be like, 'We believe in you - it will work next time!'"
Born and raised in Skerries, Co Dublin, she is circumspect about her upbringing, except to say that her aunt and uncle were key influences in her life. "Growing up, I just wanted to help people. I was very much into the caring profession from a young age. I was a bit academic and quite sporty as well; into dance, and movement. Dance really pushes the limits in what you can achieve with your body - pushing the limits in my body was quite big for me."
She taught dance to people in the local community, and particularly to people with Parkinson's. "Dancing is a powerful activity in Parkinson's," she explains. "Something about the dancing helps sufferers to move." Everything kept leading back to working with people with the condition, which is why Beats Medical makes sense. "It's only looking back that it seems serendipitous that what we ended up working with was metronome therapy but it did always fascinate me why dancing was so effective."
There weren't any roots in healthcare or entrepreneurship in her family, but being a force for good was important. "I was quite independent from a young age," she says. "My aunt was very involved in the local community and she had a huge influence on me growing up. She helps everyone, and I had always really admired that."
That social connectivity was combined with a tenacity and drive that appeared intrinsic from the offset. She says her partner, whom she has been with since she was 16, often remarks on that singular determination. "He has seen me through all the phases and everything; he's always said, 'You set yourself on something and you just put everything into it.'"
It's no surprise, then, that just five years since their testing began, Beats Medical is fast becoming the type of success story reserved for entrepreneurial folklore or Hollywood movies. With offices in Sandyford, London's Harley Street and Lisbon, they treat people in over 44 countries, and now employ eight people. The company is heading for profits of €1m by the end of this year. As well as providing tailored metronome therapy, the app provides speech and language, and occupational therapy exercises that patients can do in the comfort of their own homes.
Clancy now spends much of her time travelling as the technology gets rolled out, with clinical trials under way in Washington University - the top research facility for physical therapy in the US - and new functions are being developed and added all the time.
The success of Beats Medical has put Clancy on a fast track that could also be an isolating one. She has retained close friendships from college, and tries to make lunch dates with girlfriends on the weekends she is around (she still manages to dance once a month too but finds running fits more into her hectic schedule now). But all of it does come at a cost. "Everyone at this age has different priorities but all my friends know what we are trying to achieve, which is help people. They know why it takes up so much of my time and why I am not free on a Saturday night. They get what the ultimate goal is."
"The ultimate goal," she clarifies, "was to help some people with Parkinson's and when I got there, it was a case of: 'Is there something more?' Throughout my training and practice, I saw so many other conditions, particularly paediatric ones, which are so under-served. The overall goal is that we help people with neurological conditions live independent lives and that's where we are going towards - anything that leads down that road is what we are chasing after."
That's not to say that there haven't been dark times, though. "The tough points were nearly running out of money, which was a scary time, because we had people using the technology. It wasn't about the business not succeeding; it was about letting down those people on the technology - we just didn't have a choice to do that. But you learn a lot from that as well. Finding the right people around us was a really tough job too: having people that are aligned to your vision is so, so important. The right people are critical to your business just as much as the wrong people can have a negative effect."
She now has a board that provides her with the expertise she needs, including telecom entrepreneur Sean Melly and Dr Emma Stokes, president of the World Confederation of Physical Therapy (WCPT). On a personal level, Clancy also has mentors, including Cork-born Margaret Burgraff, VP of Intel. "It's very hard to get 20 years' experience overnight. As they call it in the tech world, it's the 'hack' of that - that you can bring people around you and augment the skills that you don't have. At this stage of my career, and not having a business degree, there's quite a few skills that I don't have.
"Starting a business," she continues, "early on, you do make mistakes and, to be honest, the earlier you make them, the better because they do set you up for the future. The decisions only get more important and bigger."
It still comes down to her remarkable surety and singular drive, though. "Sometimes you've just got to back yourself. You do need people along the way to support and advise you, but you do need to back yourself." And knowing what not to do has been key. "One of the big factors that I have learnt is the power of walking away. Of the many decisions I've made, some of the best ones have been where I've walked away. But without a doubt, they've also been the hardest ones. I've never regretted my decisions and we've done things I've never dreamed of, but making those decisions back then, you do get that sinking feeling of whether you've done the right thing."
Her ability to make the right decisions has gained Clancy recognition as a businesswoman. Last year, she was a finalist in the prestigious EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition. And in March of this year, she was awarded Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur accolade, which was presented by then Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor and included an investment of €45,000 through local enterprise offices.
Despite the accolades, she sees herself as an accidental entrepreneur and never imagined herself as a female leader. But recent events have changed her mind about how important it is to own that. Just a few weeks after being named Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur, she met a 14-year-old girl who'd seen Clancy receiving the award and told her parents she wanted to be a "girl boss" too and set up a company that would help people.
"As a kid, I just wanted to help people - entrepreneurship was never suggested. But if you were setting up lemonade stands, you were destined to be making your millions from a young age - that was presented to you. But to know that she wants to help people and that's a career option for her, I'm looking forward to her surpassing me one day. I'm really excited to see what comes out of that."
Yet even with the company's already incredible success, Clancy is still subject to her own doubts. "There's definitely an element of imposter syndrome when you don't have a business degree. But it's about identifying your weaknesses and being able to augment them. I may not have a business degree, but our chairman is one of the leads in the MBA board in Trinity; he has all that acumen. Likewise, if it's leadership or driving healthcare change, I've individuals on the board to tap into that stuff. I don't think it would be fair for anyone to say they have it all figured out. I don't think there is a blueprint for anyone on how to run their business. Sometimes staying completely open-eyed, making no assumptions, can be a strength. It's a journey of discovery and not having all the skills can be a strength too."
As for the future, the goals are precise, and potentially historic, as Clancy considers how the technology could be used to treat not only Parkinson's but also conditions such as MS and cerebral palsy, as well as the effects of stroke. "We are laser-focused on neurological conditions - we won't be going beyond those. They currently cost healthcare systems in excess of €800 billion to manage. But forget about the cost: if we can empower these individuals to lead more independent lives, we will change their lives forever; we will reduce healthcare costs that are already unsustainable, and are due to drastically increase over the next 10 to 20 years.
"I want my children or my grandchildren to know that they will have these options. There is so much more to do, you can't but want to go and take it further in a way that's sustainable and impactful. It's always about where we can go next."
Photography: Frank McGrath
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