Emerging entrepreneurs in final for EY Entrepreneur of the Year title

Four of the eight finalists have built businesses in biotech, pharma and employee engagement

The last four of eight nominees in the Emerging category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition are profiled this week. The awards are run in association with Julius Baer, Enterprise Ireland, Invest NI, The Irish Times and Newstalk. The nominees will vie for the title of EY Entrepreneur of the Year at an awards ceremony later this year.

Dr Sinéad Bleiel, AnaBio Technologies

Irish biotechnology company AnaBio Technologies was founded by Dr Sinéad Bleiel in 2011 with the vision to become a partner to leading food, beverage and pharmaceutical companies when it comes to micro-encapsulation, a process where tiny particles are encapsulated in a coating to prolong the action of drugs, among other things.

AnaBio is focused, in particular, on facilitating the controlled-release of nutrients, minerals, bacteria, probiotics and vaccines. It now exports its technology and products from its base in Co Cork to five continents.

The company was founded on the back of research Dr Bleiel conducted for her doctorate. During that time, she developed a novel technology and, by 2011, decided to commercialise it. After her PhD from Teagasc Moorepark and University College Cork, and before founding AnaBio, Dr Bleiel worked in the dairy industry to research with a multinational. She has also received a BSc in food science from University College Dublin and a MSc in protein chemistry from Michigan State University in the US.


What is your greatest business achievement to date?

We create new innovative products that improve human health, and they are currently sold on every continent in the world.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

Every month there are “back against the wall” moments from product launch delays, patent defence and IP-related challenges, unanswered technical questions, and pressure from customers to deliver faster. There is no one moment that I can pick: each day I go to work expecting the unexpected and this requires a certain frame of mind – eg, positivity.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

Probiotics numbers, since we grow billions of bacteria of them every day which we convert to euro (though unfortunately one cell doesn’t convert to one euro). I’m a scientist so it is my priority to ensure that our science works.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

Trends towards cheaper more functional foods offer a great opportunity for AnaBio. However, our technology is still unique and can’t be offered at rock-bottom prices for all ingredients. We offer savings for industry to prevent overdose of unstable ingredients and losses during processing.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

We are focusing on new ingredients to meet the customer and market demand. Our prime focus remains on immune booster type ingredients

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Accepting that I am the boss. You cannot be everybody’s friend and also the chief executive. It’s not a nice feeling and I also needed to accept that things change and personalities change as a company grows. This was difficult for me to accept but I’m (a little more) mature and accepting of my position now.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Having too many ideas. We only need one idea to work. If we focus on one idea, and execute this in a good manner, this is success and the rest will be easy. For example if you are a chef, it is best to focus on a shorter tasty menu instead of a long list of dishes that are mediocre.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Learn to say no. Don’t over-promise since it will come back to bite you eventually.

Leonora O’Brien, Pharmapod

Having come across several medication errors, some which involved the preventable deaths of patients, Leonora O’Brien saw a gap to devise a system to improve efficiency in community pharmacies, long-term care, and hospitals. Ultimately, she founded Pharmapod, a cloud-based management and intelligence tool to reduce what are known as patient safety incidents.

There are, according to O’Brien, an estimated 500 million medication errors each year in European hospitals alone, with as much as 7 per cent of hospital admissions related to medication. And two-thirds of those are considered to be avoidable. In the US, medical error is the third leading case of death according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016.

Pharmapod enables healthcare professionals to record, review and analyse patient safety incidents quickly and securely, allowing teams to plan and implement preventative actions. Today, it is the solution of choice for more than 60 per cent of pharmacies in the Canadian market and has significant contracts in the long-term care sector in the US as well, for example.

The company currently employs a team of 30 staff, based in the Republic, the UK and Canada. It is also recruiting to add staff in the US, where it has recently been federally listed as a patient safety organisation. This year, the company will also launch in the Australian and New Zealand markets.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Over 60 per cent of pharmacies in the Canadian market use Pharmapod as their incident management solution. We won the competitive tender run by the pharmacy regulator in Ontario and we are now responsible for the largest patient safety program of its kind in Canada.

Launching with Shoppers Drug Mart in Canada was also as key milestone as they are the largest pan-Canadian pharmacy group and leaders in delivery of patient care.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

We were told at onoe point that an investment fund was going to invest but after months of talks and promises, one of the partners decided they’d wait until we were “later stage”. Christmas was around the corner and I didn’t have money to pay the wages. I had bought a house in London in my twenties and so I decided to sell that, put a director’s loan into the business and pay the wages. Ultimately we managed to get funding. It was a risk but I 100 per cent believed it would pay off.

Not everyone has the stomach for that kind of risk taking. A mentor in later years told me “never sell the family farm” – but of course he had done so himself and that too paid off, so maybe it’s all part of the journey.

What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best advice I received was to trust your own instincts and always back yourself. You know your business better than anyone and you understand the right strategic direction for your product.

I don’t believe people are advised strongly enough about the benefits of having a cofounder. Having co-founders really help especially when you’re scaling internationally and you are expected to have a founder presence in your key target countries.

Describe your growth funding path:

Pharmapod has raised over €4million to date in pre-seed and seed investment from angel investors from the tech and healthcare sectors and institutional investors including Enterprise Ireland, DBIC and the Canadian Pharmacists Association. It has just opened a €3.5 million round to drive international expansion.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

I enjoy a challenge and business is a challenge, so I don't find it hard as such. International business does come with its challenges. I have a three-year-old daughter and it can be hard sometimes being away from family – it is a constant juggle of priorities, both professional and personal. You need to have very strong support behind you both from your team and from your family. But that is the nature of the business and I wouldn't swap it. My daughter has a lot of worldly experience for her age as a result of my work: she has lived in Toronto for a year for example and loved it.

Dr Matt Cooper, Inflazome

Entrepreneur Dr Matt Cooper returned to academia in 2009, having completed his PhD in chemistry in 1995, to work on therapies that block inflammation. Inflazome is the product of that research, a biotechnology company developing medicines to help people with debilitating diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

The company develops orally available medicine to address the unmet clinical needs in inflammatory diseases and is now led by Dr Cooper, having been founded by him and Trinity College’s Luke O’Neill.

The group was founded in mid-2016 and has since raised €55 million in venture capital. Its drugs block a key danger sensor in immune cells, called inflammasomes and it now has two drugs in clinical trials: Inzomelid, for neurodegenerative diseases in the brain, and Somalix, for inflammatory diseases in the rest of the body.

The group employs 16 staff and contracts many more through research, manufacturing and consultant requirements.

Dr Cooper has a long and successful history in the sector, having co-founded Defensin Therapeutics and previously worked as managing director of Cambridge Medical Innovations, now part of Abbot.

As well as being an affiliate professor in biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, he is also a professor in clinical biology at the University of Queensland.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Progressing two new medicines in a completely new field into clinical trials.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

The request of investors to move from Australia to Dublin when my family couldn't move. Toughest decision I've ever made: compelled to help people who are sick but having to spend time away from family.

What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The worst advice was early on when I was told all you need to succeed is people and money. Whilst this is not untrue, it misses out on so much that is important, in particular what is the exit strategy and the market pull for your business. Now, I work backwards from the market opportunity and market window (not too early, not too late), and then look to deliver solutions to fill that gap.

The best advice was to find mentors and to network as much as possible. In my experience, successful businesses are built by people that get on well with other people.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

We already operate in a dozen countries, with patents filed in about 50 countries. Our ambition is to keep on expanding our global reach.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

Our two new drugs in registration trials or at EU and US market approval stage.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

I was involved in a downsizing at a start-up in Cambridge in the 2000s where unfortunately half of the staff were let go to reduce cash burn.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Employing a friend down on his luck.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Inappropriate scaling of the business, either by growing research and development, sales and marketing too aggressively such that fixed cost cash burn far exceeds capital inflow and revenue, or conversely, not growing organically or via acquisitions to grab a opportunity window in a highly competitive area.

How will your market look in three years?

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and depression are sadly all expanding now with an ageing population. There are no curative therapies available so a disease modifying drug would be transformational for millions of people.

John Goulding and Joe Lennon, Workvivo

John Goulding and Joe Lennon had a 10-year working relationship before starting Workvivo, a tech company which provides an internal communication platform for employees, in 2017. Previously, they were chief executive and chief technology officer of CoreHR, an enterprise payroll and human resources software, which was acquired by JMI Equity in December 2015.

Before working together, John was a senior director in EMC, now Dell EMC, leading operations in Boston, Cork, Tokyo and Sydney, while Joe was chief technology officer of Vearsa, a digital publishing platform.

Since launching the Workvivo product in June 2018, the company has grown from two to 26 staff and now has more than 50 enterprise customers across 47 countries. Over 80 per cent of the company’s revenue is recurring annually and, last year, more than 50 per cent of it came from US customers. Over the coming five years, the pair expect to grow their headcount to 130 staff while its headquarters will remain in Co Cork.

Among investors in the company is Eric Yuan, the chief executive and founder of Zoom, while clients in the US include Telus International and Netgear. Local clients include Bus Éireann and Laya Healthcare.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?

The lightbulb moment for us was really knowing that our different skillsets and experience, especially in the human resources tech space, gave us a great chance of building a product and company that had every chance of success, so we decided to go for it – and then figured out what we would build.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?

In 2019, we ended up in a competition for a contract with one of the world's leading technology companies. We ultimately won the business in a competitive scenario with Facebook, which was a real confidence boost for the team and has led to much more business in the US in particular. This also led to us meeting and securing investment from Eric Yuan, chief executive and co-founder of Zoom, who has been hugely helpful.

What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best piece of advice is that speed is everything. It’s amazing what you can achieve in a short space of time if you decide to.

I wouldn’t say this was the worst piece of advice but we do see some companies at early stages overly focus on the investment process as a measure of success rather than focus on the things that matter such as building a great product, looking after customers and winning new customers.

Describe your growth funding path:

The company was started with a combination of founder funds and investment from Enterprise Ireland. In 2019 we received investment from Eric Yuan and in 2020 we took our Series A round of $17 million with investment from Tiger Global in New York & Frontline in Dublin.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

By 2022, we expect to have over one million users on the platform. We also expect to have added over 100 employees to our team, bringing overall employees to around 130 in the Republic and the US. We plan to be one of the leading players in the employee communications and engagement space and expect to contribute to the increasing profile of Cork and Ireland as a great place to build a successful tech company.