Is the microbiome the ‘holy grail’ of health?

13 Sep 2018

Andrea Doolan. Image: Miki Barlok

For Leaders’ Insights this week, Andrea Doolan of Atlantia Food Clinical Trials brings us inside the world of the microbiome.

Andrea Doolan is CEO and a founding member at Atlantia Food Clinical Trials.

Doolan has almost 20 years’ experience in the industry, with extensive knowledge in human clinical research studies in food, beverage and health supplements for global companies across global markets.

She previously was clinical trials coordinator for the Harvard AIDS Clinical Trials Group at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

After her time in the US, Doolan returned to Ireland as clinical trials manager with APC Microbiome Ireland at University College Cork (UCC), where she played a leading role in the development of spin-out company Atlantia in 2013.

‘You must be open in communications, be clear on goals and expectations, and be fair when decisions fall to your judgement. After that, you just need a little bit of luck and the world is your oyster’

Describe your role and what you do.

As CEO of Atlantia Food Clinical Trials, I lead a team that provides end-to-end solutions for human clinical research studies in functional foods, beverages and health supplements to a worldwide client base.

Each day, I consult with our clinical sites and our expert team of world-class clinicians, scientists, research nurses, dieticians, nutritionists and operations personnel.

A significant part of my role is dedicated to clinical study design to meet the regulatory requirements for both EFSA and FDA but, like many CEOs, I play an integral role in the sales cycle, attending conferences and trade shows, and meeting current and potential new clients.

I am always monitoring budgets and deliverables to ensure projects run efficiently and to schedule.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

While a key function of my role is study design, as CEO I need to be across all departmental functions of the business where priorities can vary on any given day.

I like to be organised. My meeting schedule is designed for time efficiency but we are a business in a rapid growth phase, so I can’t be too precious and, to be honest, I thrive on the dynamic nature of business.

I would love to say that my work-life balance is seamless and perfect but, like every other working mother, I do my absolute imperfect best! School term is definitely easier as routines are established quickly and after-school sports and classes are fixed, and I can plan all of that down to the last second. School holiday time brings its challenges, but I am so fortunate to have parents that make my working life possible and to have the most understanding children.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

They are no different to most industry sectors, I expect. We need to keep afoot of consumer trends, not just in food behaviours but nutritional and functional health, chronic health issues, and disease. We are fortunate to work with scientists that are among the top 1pc cited in the world for their clinical research, so keeping our finger on the pulse is already embedded in our corporate culture.

We need to step up our proximity connectivity to our client base. Right now, we are very excited to be in the middle of our US subsidiary set-up and we aim to open our doors in Q1 2019.

We are tremendously grateful to all of those who work with us as we undertake our research. We are always looking for volunteers, so any interested individuals can obtain further information on

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

We are entering a most exciting phase for functional food development right now. One of our key investigative research areas is in digestive health, so what we are seeing with pre- and pro-biotic development is groundbreaking.

But, outside of the confines of digestive health, the microbiome – which constitutes live microorganisms that can help and alleviate physiological conditions ranging from digestive health to weight management, immune health, cognitive health, healthy ageing and sports performance – is being pursued by global food, beverage and health supplement companies, and is increasingly being viewed as the ‘holy grail’ of diet and health. Consumers are already seeing the benefits of products on the supermarket shelves that are fully effective in tackling chronic issues.

We can expect that the evolution of microbiome research will, in turn, extend to treatments for dermatitis, psoriasis, weight loss, prenatal health, beauty and ageing – and that’s just the beginning. We are thrilled to be working with progressive companies focusing on cutting-edge research.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I completed a bachelor of science in microbiology and higher diploma from NUIG and then headed off to the US within weeks of graduating. My early career experience as clinical trials coordinator for the Harvard AIDS Clinical Trials Group was formative in establishing my future professional direction, and without question put me on this road, inspired by wonderful people along the way.

When I returned to Ireland as clinical trials manager with APC Microbiome Ireland, I was incredibly proud to play a leading role in the development of Atlantia when it fully transitioned out of UCC in 2013. My appointment as CEO remains my greatest career highlight.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Having worked in the US for almost five years, I returned to Ireland to take up a position with a start-up company. The company failed, and I found the whole process very disheartening. In hindsight, I should have probably stayed in the States until I was entitled to US citizenship and perhaps gained a little more experience in industry.

However, I did pick up the pieces and now acknowledge that these experiences helped form the person I am today, and it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

‘I would task every business woman in a leadership role in Ireland to undertake just one initiative whereby they can talk to the business women of the future’

So, I would urge every individual to take chances, believe in yourself and find the entrepreneur within you that challenges the norm in order to find a better way. You have the power to make a difference!

How do you get the best out of your team?

I’m an advocate of the transformational leadership style. Having experienced it in my early career and seeing how it positively impacted on the performance of individuals and teams, I was determined to adopt the style as my own.

I have always firmly believed that you must surround yourself with good people, be open in communications on good and bad news, be clear on goals and expectations, and be fair when decisions fall to your judgement. After that, you just need a little bit of luck and the world is your oyster! I’m immensely proud of the Atlantia team.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

I was certainly in the minority as a female in science in my university days, but I am greatly encouraged by the numbers now contributing to science on the national and international stage. I am keenly aware of the challenges, however, and I was honoured to address hundreds of female students at iWish 2017 in Cork at a key point in their lives when they were at the juncture of considering their future direction.

As women, we need to talk more about our experiences, encourage and ‘be real’ on the challenges, but also on the rewards. I would task every business woman in a leadership role in Ireland to undertake just one initiative whereby they can talk to the business women of the future. I fondly remember those who inspired me and I would be honoured if anything I said or did would influence the future generation to come.

Who is your role model and why?

I have many role models; people who have showcased much of their brilliance to science on the world stage, yet remain generous in spirit, grounded, and committed to ongoing work and research. Most notable in recent years are Intel’s Margaret Burgraff, one of Silicon Republic’s 100 top women in STEM; Anne Condon, world leader in research into DNA computing; and Eamonn Quigley, head of gastroenterology and hepatology at Houston Methodist Hospital and principal investigator at APC.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

First one must be The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection by Scott C Anderson, John F Cryan and Ted Dinan. Not just because Ted is a member of the Atlantia board and that John is a principal investigator on some groundbreaking research trials, but because their book exemplifies the brilliance and cutting-edge thought leadership that is coming out of Ireland and changing the way we look at food globally.

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson because, sometimes, a political thriller is just the perfect way to switch off!

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My essentials are my family, my multiple tech gadgets, my team – all combined, they are a pretty irresistible driving force for me.

Of course, I also eat well … most of the time. And I do enjoy a glass of wine while relaxing and entertaining.

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