Inside an Irish medical tech company...Aerogen

John Power leads the company that delivers liquid drugs into aerosols

I left school at 16 and trained originally as a draughtsman, gaining my design engineering qualification and later an MBA through night school. So, my passion for new product development and innovation really developed from the ground floor up.

Through my work on the development of life-support ventilators for a global medical device company, I realised that existing methods of delivering drugs to critically ill patients on life support were very poor. While a huge amount of technology had gone into the design of ventilators, methods of drug delivery had not changed much since the 1960s.

Following a career focused on technology development in aerospace, robotics and automation, and medical devices, I founded Aerogen (originally Cerus Medical) in 1997.

The vision for the technology was to transform aerosol drug delivery for the most vulnerable patients in an acute care setting.

Roughly one in three people in intensive care units (ICU) anywhere in the world is there because of respiratory-related conditions. Air is pumped into their lungs through a ventilator, and the challenge was how to get drugs into that airflow. We looked at all the technologies available and licensed an early stage technology out of Silicon Valley.

Eventually we perfected a way of turning liquid drugs into aerosols and we became the first company in the world to develop an aerosol system that could deliver drugs effectively to respirators and neonates and pre-terms.

Our technologies are being used by more than 80 per cent of hospitals in Ireland and 60 per cent of the top 100 hospitals in the US. We employ 115 people globally, including 85 in Galway.

We are currently developing two new products that allow our drug-delivery system to be used outside the ICU setting and became the first company in the world to deliver nebulisation to the lungs of premature babies.

Working week

I work mainly from our offices at Galway Business Park in Dangan, with a fantastic team dedicated to creating the global standard of care for patients receiving aerosol drug delivery in hospitals in more than 70 countries throughout the world.

When I am not working from the Galway office, I travel quite a lot engaging our overseas commercial teams and customers to ensure I am fully up to speed with ever- changing market dynamics.

On a typical working day, I get up at 7am and over a coffee, I check the emails that will have come in overnight. I do a short weights session, mainly kettle bells to kick the body into action, and I always have a good breakfast of muesli, yoghurt and fruit. If I am not travelling, I’ll be at the office by 8.30am.

Fast-moving Every day in a fast-moving business like Aerogen is different.

To maximise my time for strategic activities, I try to reduce to a minimum my involvement in recurring scheduled meetings.

I believe in hiring great people and letting them lead their functions so my operations, commercial and financial management teams largely leave me alone unless there is something specific I need to be involved or updated with.

The flip side of this somewhat unstructured style of management is that you must ensure you keep your finger on the pulse of the business by continuous open dialogue and communications across the business.

To achieve this, I run an open-door policy and will also drop in unscheduled to meetings in any area of the business.

I cope well with ambiguity and will normally be working through several diverse business propositions at any one time.

These could range from evaluating anything from new product concepts to distribution partnerships, strategic alliances and joint ventures to investor relations.

As our business is 99 per cent export, I tend to travel in blocks of days between major markets, spending several weeks a year in the US.

We now have about 30 people working permanently overseas, with employees in Britain, Germany, France, China and US. The US accounts for about half our business and we recently added to our Chicago office with a second location in San Mateo, California.

It is important as a leader to create a vision that people buy in to.

Although I would very much consider myself a hands-on engineer, it is my main role to encourage the team of terrific young engineers and scientists to be bold and to strive to create great new products and clinical solutions.

I engage in regular speaking opportunities in my capacity as chief executive.

I believe I have a responsibility to try to share my experiences with others out there, good and bad, so they may be encouraged to take up new challenges whether internally within their own organisations or to look at completely new entrepreneurial ventures. Industry societies In addition to my day job, I am involved in a number of industry societies. I am a long-standing board member of the Irish Medical Device Association, an industry body that represents our €9 billion med- tech sector.

I am an adjunct lecturer at NUIG where I have the enjoyable and somewhat novel experience of lecturing across three colleges, business and commerce, engineering and science, where I engage in my favourite subjects of innovation strategies and entrepreneurship.

I believe there is nothing better to keep you on your toes than to stand in front of a group of strangers and try to explain your business philosophy.

Out of hours: I am a real sports enthusiast, having played soccer up to my late 40s. I take in a few Chelsea matches every year along with Irish rugby internationals and I'm a Connacht Rugby season ticket holder.