Patient care is the main motivator for this scientist turned start-up founder

27 Oct 2023

Image: © ImagesRouges/ Medical

Chief scientific officer at medical device start-up SymPhysis Medical Michelle Tierney tells us why she made the switch from academia to the start-up life.

Michelle Tierney worked in academia for the guts of a decade before she realised that something was missing – the element of entrepreneurial risk. Her pursuit of that ultimately led her to the role she has today ­– chief scientific officer and co-founder of SymPhysis Medical.

When she was an academic, Tierney’s research interests lay in medicines derived from natural sources. She has a master’s in pharmacognosy and a PhD in chemistry that looked at natural substances derived from seaweed. But after a few years of research, she wanted to apply what she had learned in a real-world context.

“The kind of research I was involved in progressed slowly because it was still at the early discovery phase. I wanted to do work that I could tangibly see the impact of my work on the lives of the patients,” she explains, adding that the academic world was not a fit for her “fast-paced personality”. She applied for a position as a scientific adviser at a global clinical research organisation based in Ireland. “It was an exciting job,” she recalls. “My colleagues and I used to joke with each other that we were creating scientific movies.”

BioInnovate and the birth of SymPhysis

“However, after four years I wanted more of a challenge in my career and wanted to get closer to impacting the patient experience, so I started looking into medical devices and did a programme at the University of Galway.” She worked on BioInnovate, a Galway-based programme that specialises in medical devices and finding new solutions for unmet clinical needs. It was exactly what Tierney was looking for. While participating she met her SymPhysis co-founder Tim Jones and they decided to start a company catering to tech for malignant pleural effusion – an unmet clinical need they felt strongly about.

Malignant pleural effusion is a build-up of fluid and cancer cells between the chest wall and the lung, which can occur in late-stage cancer patients.

Currently, the team at SymPhysis is working on developing a drainage device that allows patients with life-limiting cancers who suffer from a build-up of fluid in the chest to care for themselves at home. “It will be a significant disruption to the fluid drainage device market when it launches as it enables patients to drain themselves independently,” says Tierney. Many similar devices on the market require the assistance of a carer or a public health nurse.

Tierney believes that giving patients the autonomy to be able to care for themselves independently at home is very important – and it will be a key trend for the future. She explains that the drainage device is going to be paired with a digital health platform to enable patients to track their progress at home. The tool gives clinicians visibility so they can monitor how the patient is doing with their drainage. Tierney says that clinicians will find it easier to place the drainage device in the operating theatre and it will be less invasive for patients, and therefore less likely to cause complications.

A wearer of many hats

As the team continues to hone the product, Tierney keeps a close eye on developments in the medical world. She spends time planning preclinical and clinical studies, approving internal development documentation and working on the company’s regulatory strategy. But it’s not all science. “My day-to-day duties are very varied depending on which hat I have on that day – or hour,” Tierney says.

“In any given week, I could be writing an application for grants or other supports, on a call with our research and development partners, meeting with clinicians to get feedback on the device, strategising ways forward in terms of current business or development challenges or talking with current and future investors.”

While she’s happy to be combining her interest in business and fast-paced work with science and patient care, she admits that stepping into the shoes of an exec was not without its challenges.

In the past 12 months, the core SymPhysis team has ramped up development activity and taken on a lot of new staff. Tierney had to get used to working with multidisciplinary teams of people who don’t necessarily have the same skills as she does.

“The first challenge for me was trying to ensure I communicated in a way that suited working with multidisciplinary teams. To put it into context, prior to Bioinnovate and SymPhysis Medical I worked with other scientists who understood and thought through things the way I did. However, as a leader of a multidisciplinary team, I’ve learned that there can be multiple interpretations of the same information, so I constantly challenge myself to communicate in simple and more efficient ways.”

“The second challenge would be the level and frequency of decision-making required of an entrepreneur daily,” she adds. “Prior to SymPhysis Medical, I had leaders who made the high-level decisions, now I am the one making those high-level decisions.” Does she find it rewarding? She says it is “challenging, but interesting!”

Importance of an open mind

Tierney has no regrets about pursuing the start-up life and points out that scientists – and STEM professionals in general – should keep an open mind when it comes to their career trajectories. “I would say to aspiring scientists to avoid making predictions about their career, but to keep an open mind because technologies are continually emerging and business needs are changing, so opportunities as a scientist are endless and continually evolving.”

“When I was studying science in school, I assumed I would solely work in the lab as a scientist. But I eventually ended up working in the area of clinical trials and creating 3D animations, which was a role that didn’t exist in Ireland when I started college.”

Her path as an entrepreneur came about because she kept an open mind, too. She attributes the BioInnovate programme with helping her to realise her entrepreneurial ambitions. She adds that her fondest memories as an entrepreneur are the interactions that she had as part of BioInnovate with the patients, their carers and family members. “Those patient conversations have been a key motivator through this long entrepreneurship journey and will always stay with me even as I move forward.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.