Sligo-based Epona Biotech is on a mission to revolutionise how antibiotics are used in veterinary medicine.
What is special about your business?
We are an intellectual property company specialising in animal health, and we have discovered a unique biomarker called serum amyloid A which can detect infections with a sensitivity some 50 times greater than a thermometer.
This is changing the way many equine veterinarians practice and use antibiotics, and has the potential to be effective across the wider animal healthcare spectrum. Our first product based on the biomarker is Stablelab, which accurately and speedily detects infections in horses and enables vets to monitor how an animal is responding to antibiotic treatment.
What sets your business apart in your sector?
What we discovered enabled us to disrupt an established market segment by introducing a new way of monitoring and treating infections. We have invested significantly in technology to support the testing to ensure it can be conducted as simply and as easily as possible.
In designing our initial product for the equine industry we were also very mindful of the environment in which a vet or horse owner is operating, and this led us to opt for a handheld test which is also novel.
Epona Biotech is now 10 years old. What have been your biggest challenges?
We are the market leader which is both the opportunity and the great challenge. We expect others will try to follow us so our key focus has been on building a reputation for quality in general and for our launch product in particular.
Our market is global, so it has been a huge challenge to cover the ground. Initially I was travelling nearly 80 per cent of the time to kickstart sales. Things got easier when we established a serious foothold in the United States, where we have grown sales of Stablelab 50 per cent year-on-year.
Managing our resources while growing has also been challenging, as has finding the right talent. We’ve been very fortunate with the calibre of the people working for Stablelab, but it was challenging finding the right staff with the level of experience required to adapt to a start-up environment.
What have been your biggest successes?
I am very proud of the fact that I managed to start and run the business from Sligo, that it has grown solidly, and that Stablelab is now available in 20 countries.
We have established partnerships with leading vet hospitals around the world, and Stablelab has become one of the fastest growing brands in the US. To build on this success we will be moving into other sectors of the animal health industry and looking to work with different partners. But to begin with we had to develop our own product to prove to the world that the biomarker worked.
Commercially our biggest success so far has been signing a recent deal with the global animal health company Zoetis. We are spinning off the manufacturing and distribution rights for Stablelab to them.
What piece of advice would you give someone starting a business?
If you haven’t done it before – and I hadn’t – it’s important to surround yourself with the right people. Find a mentor who is on the same wavelength as you, and make sure that the first investors you bring on board believe in you and not just the product.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
I admire John Magnier, the founder and CEO of the world-class thoroughbred Coolmore stud. Not only is he outstanding in business, he is also an outstanding horseman and I really admire this. I've also received tremendous support from Coolmore in setting up my business, and I think they are just phenomenal and one of Ireland's greatest companies.
What two things could the Government do to help SMEs in the current environment?
The whole environment around start-ups needs to change radically. There’s a severe lack of adequate funding and of people with experience of working in start-ups. Start-ups may be small but they are an incredibly important contributor to future economic success, and multinational corporations with a significant presence in Ireland should be more actively involved in supporting them through some sort of an investment fund for the sector. One of Ireland’s greatest resources is its wealth of natural entrepreneurs. We should support them a lot better than we do.
In your experience are banks lending to SMEs?
Some banks are lending to SMEs and others are not. That has been my experience. AIB was the first to lend to me, and has continued to support me throughout. It was difficult to secure initial bank finance, and some banks wouldn't even talk to me.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
I’ve made many. Usually the thing I regret the most is that I didn’t make a decision sooner. I think acting quickly in start-ups is very important. It’s a process of learning what not to do, and to focus on the things that work.
What’s the most frustrating part?
Spotting a great opportunity but not having the resources to leverage it as quickly as you want.
What makes it all worthwhile?
Every kind of success. Whether that’s sharing something with the team, building something that hasn’t been created before, or generating partnerships globally, I enjoy all of it. Most of all, I am proud of the fact that we’ve changed the way many equine veterinarians practise and use antibiotics.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
I wouldn’t like to put a price on it, but it clearly has value as the deal with Zoetis proves. This deal opens up new opportunities for us, and I’m very excited about the opportunity we now have to explore the potential of infection response and treatment for other veterinary sectors. We are really just beginning.