Ireland a ‘phenomenal place’ to develop drugs of tomorrow

30 May 2017

APC Technologies’ bio lab. Image: Donal Murphy Photography

Ireland is the land of a thousand welcomes, relentless begrudgery, lush greenery and, perhaps, pharma research.

APC Technologies

“Ireland is a phenomenal place to exist if you’re a pharma research group. It has a global reputation. We were naïve to that at first.”

Future Human

Mark Barrett is co-founder of APC Technologies, a relatively young business that is, essentially, hired help for pharma giants.

A new drug needs added research? Regulatory constraints putting a squeeze on your internal testing? APC Technologies is there to help.

It has proved a popular outfit since its creation, with a few key elements to Barrett’s operation getting APC front and centre in the race for tomorrow’s treatments.

APC’s analytical lab

APC’s analytical lab. Image: Donal Murphy Photography

Fine growth

Barrett and Brian Glennon, a professor in University College Dublin, set up the company in 2011 and, in the years since, they have grown their team to more than 100, with revenues in the tens of millions of euros.

It’s currently partnered with most of the 10 largest pharmaceutical companies in the sector, as well as plenty of the major biotech firms dotted around Ireland.

Companies come to APC with a concept to leverage its set-up, which sees cutting-edge technology and an international cohort of researchers combine into an attractive, focused option.

The appeal of APC is its position in a finely balanced industry. On the one side, it enjoys different, sometimes better, capabilities than leading pharmachem companies. On the other, it offers a release when companies are struggling, to negotiate their way through the arduous regulatory, research-heavy requirements.

“We provide that,” said Barrett. “The pressure these companies are under is immense, to accelerate and develop their product. These are breakthrough medicines, saving people’s lives. It has gone from developing treatments over several years to now looking at just a couple of years.

“We’re working on cutting-edge therapies that have never been researched before, ever. Our research is the difference between a patient getting their medicine and not getting it.”

What a year

Barrett has had a busy 12 months, with plans to hire 100 people at the beginning of 2016 seeing APC’s stress points revealed.

He claims his biggest mistake in business, to date, is not having a HR team embedded in the organisation from the start. Given the need to market, advertise and interview for a significant number of positions, it was a lesson that Barrett and Glennon learned quite quickly.

“We’re recruiting from all over the world, relocating people with their families etc. It has been a learning experience. The HR team, they are part of interviewing, recruit management, but also training and continual professional development.

30pc of APC’s workforce is international, with a highly educated staff overall, primarily to PhD level. Surprisingly, though, attracting people hasn’t been much of a problem.

This, according to Barrett, is because operating in Ireland gives APC an advantage worthy of discussion.

“It’s English-speaking, it’s in the EU, it’s safe. I really think that is the key. Singapore is another country very active in this space. These would be the global leaders.

“I think the people we’re enticing are looking to really specialise in the research space,” he said.

“Our brand attracts that. A lot of people are coming from various companies and they want to get into the detail of research. We’re pure-play research.

APC Technologies co-founder Mark Barrett. Image: APC Technologies

APC Technologies co-founder Mark Barrett. Image: Donal Murphy Photography

Built from scratch

“We came out of basic ideas, packed-up-pieces research. Now we’re looking at personalised oncology, gene therapy medicines.

“We’re here to ensure these medicines are made available to the people that need them.”

Back in 2011, Barrett and Glennon took a big bet on drug discovery, with little to go on and much to prove. “We were born out of the teeth of the recession. No one was writing a big cheque for us,” he told last year.

In the early days of APC, Barrett and Glennon bootstrapped the company by taking part in a Science Foundation Ireland consortium focused on postdoctoral research.

In 2013, APC received a research grant from Enterprise Ireland and created a dozen jobs at the time.

“When we went to form APC, we said, ‘Let’s just give this thing a go, let’s not obsess and the finance side will work itself out if the idea is good enough.’”

Now, with a bulging workforce, that idea seems to have been a solid one.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic