From cracking the genome to breaking into the US market
WILD GEESE:Kate Gunning, Founder and CEO of BioVisability, San Francisco
AFTER MORE than 20 years and a successful career in the US, Kate Gunning from Dún Laoghaire is using her experience to guide fledgling Irish firms wishing to enter the US market.
Gunning is part of a generation that emigrated in the 1980s in search of jobs.
After she had graduated from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Kevin Street, with a degree in applied science in 1987, Gunning went first to England.
“The only positions were in England so I went to London and worked for the University College Hospital,” she explains.
“At the time, anyone who wanted to work in science had to leave Ireland. I worked there for three years and then my lottery came up on the US visa so I decided to travel to the States.”
A short stint in New York was followed by a move to California where she found life particularly agreeable.
“It was an exciting place to work,” she says. “It was exciting to be in sunny California. I was in my late 20s and I got my first job there with the human genome project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.”
Her job was to assess how new technologies could be used to speed up and automate the process of DNA sequencing.
After the success of that project and the worldwide interest it generated, Gunning decided to stick with her new passion.
“I got hooked into genomics and I ended up specialising in automation and technology for DNA analysis,” she says.
Working at the forefront of the genome project, Gunning was part of a team that used technology to rapidly improve our ability to map and understand DNA sequencing.
Through that work she developed links in the US and internationally with business and research centres that would lead to her developing her own business. Eight years ago she branched out and started working as a consultant helping Irish companies to break into America.
“I’ve been specialising in market strategy and development,” she says. “Based in the Bay Area [San Francisco], I have a keen awareness of the industry and I’m connected to the life sciences and healthcare industries. I’m using my connections and understanding to help Irish companies to strategise.”
Working with Irish universities and development agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland, she has helped a number of companies to expand into the US.
Among the success stories is Biancamed, a UCD company that developed respirators to detect sleep apnoea. Biancamed was bought last year for an estimated $25 million (€20 million).
After eight years of working with Irish companies, Gunning believes there is a steep learning curve for technology start-ups moving to the US.
“It’s more aggressive over here,” she says. “You have to be focused on what you want to achieve. So many companies will come over and test the waters but you need to follow through and build relationships here.
“Irish companies underestimate how much time and effort they need to spend in the US market. Unfortunately it’s a costly exercise to set up market development in the US but you have got to show that you mean business.”
Research is also key in the US as investors are only interested in those who know their competition and understand their market position.
And for technology companies, setting up a base in the US is vital, she said.
“Venture capitalists are not going to travel to Ireland. You have to go to them. So you have to be committed to the market and set up a headquarters here so that people will take you seriously and want to invest in you. Getting investment is a tough proposition.”
On the positive side, she believes there is plenty of opportunity for Irish entrepreneurs who are willing to put in the hours.
She points to the rising number and expanding reach of Irish diaspora networks around the globe and the recent launch of Next Generation Ireland, a mentorship programme that encourages employers to reward the most innovative young Irish people.
“People will help you,” she says. “There are plenty of Irish people who are more than happy to help so use the network and find people who are willing to mentor. We didn’t have that back in the 1980s and I think that is going to be a huge help.”