Dr Sally Cudmore: ‘If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not being brave enough’

18 Jan 2023

Dr Sally Cudmore. Image: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

As the first woman at the helm of UCC Innovation, Cudmore shares her career in research, her brush with entrepreneurship and her advice for other leaders.

In November 2022, Dr Sally Cudmore was appointed as University College Cork’s (UCC) new director of innovation.

Having held the position of interim director since June 2021, Cudmore is the first woman to be appointed as director of innovation at UCC.

With a blended background of science and entrepreneurship, her aim is to advance UCC’s efforts to deliver breakthroughs, expertise and technologies to enhance our society and economy.

“My vision is for UCC Innovation to be a key driving force in ensuring that UCC achieves its vision and is recognised nationally and internationally by students, peers and other stakeholders as a leading innovative university” she told SiliconRepublic.com.

“I want to see an increased translation of UCC research into outputs that will positively impact people and the planet – new spin-out companies that create jobs, products and services; knowledge transferred to industry to make them more competitive; and a new generation of researchers and entrepreneurs that are trained to think about how they can create positive impact.”

‘There is a great sense of achievement from discovering, publishing or patenting something that no one knew before’

Cudmore’s academic accolades are plentiful. She has a degree in biochemistry from UCC, a PhD in cell biology from the European Molecular Biology Lab in Germany, and a master’s degree in technology management from University College Dublin.

She also carried out postdoctoral research at the University of California San Francisco before moving into industry where she led the cell biology division in Elan Pharma, a neuroscience-focused biotechnology company headquartered in Dublin.

“My research background has all been in the broad area of cell biology and included virology, intra and inter-cellular trafficking, cell cytoskeleton and developing new gene delivery systems,” she said.

“Following this, I moved to manage a large SFI research centre in UCC, APC Microbiome Ireland, and enjoyed absorbing lots of research knowledge on microbiology, immunology, gastroenterology, food science and nutrition, and health.”

Cudmore said one of the best things about research is that it allows you to follow your own interests, which can often lead you in directions you may not anticipate.

“There is a great sense of achievement from discovering, publishing or patenting something that no one knew before and, in areas like cell biology, your discoveries can lead to meaningful patient benefits.”

‘A huge learning curve’

While her scientific background is impressive to say the least, Cudmore brings to her new role a wealth of leadership experience too, starting with that initial role of leading the cell biology unit at Elan Pharma.

“It was [the company’s] first foray into developing delivery systems for non-traditional drugs – the biological nature and large size of genes made them difficult payloads and add to that the need to deliver them to specific sites/cell types,” she said.

“Budgets available in industry were on a different scale to what I had experienced previously as a post-doctoral researcher, and this was the first role in which I had staff who reported directly to me. It was a huge learning curve scientifically, professionally and personally and I relished the opportunity.”

After four years in industry, Cudmore moved to UCC as the general manager of APC Microbiome Ireland.

“When I left that role 18 years later, the APC had grown to a centre with more than 300 staff, had won more than €230m in competitive research funding, collaborated with more than 40 companies, produced more than 3,000 peer-reviewed research publications, spun-out four successful companies, was ranked number one globally for antimicrobial research, and was in the top five microbiome institutions internationally.”

Cudmore also had a brush with entrepreneurship in 2012, when she was a co-founder and part-time CEO of Atlantia Clinical Trials, a UCC spin-out company from APC Microbiome Ireland.

“Our founding team developed the business plan, explored commercial feasibility, developed the company service portfolio and pricing strategy. I negotiated shareholder and licence agreements, incorporated the business and established the board of directors,” she said. “Having come from a non-business background, it was a huge learning curve and a challenge.”

‘Admit to mistakes, learn from them and move on’

While Cudmore relished the learning curves that came with leadership, she said managing relationships can often be a particular challenge within the science community.

“In my various roles, I have often been at the interface between different cultures, which often use different language or jargon that may not be understood by others, for example, academia versus industry, research versus business, staff versus customers/clients, investors versus founders,” she said.

“This is a big challenge to communication and collaboration. Thus, learning how to listen to and understand different perspectives is very important.”

Having gained all this experience and now at the helm of UCC Innovation, Cudmore said that women often bring a different perspective to business and are skilled at integrating thinking, feeling, intuiting, negotiating and doing.

However, she added that no person, regardless of gender, will have all of the knowledge and skills needed to establish a new business.

“The key to success is not being afraid to admit this, and proactively seeking help, mentorship and advice along the journey, while learning from the experience of others,” she said.

“Admit to mistakes, learn from them and move on. If you are not making mistakes, you are not being brave enough and are playing it too safe! Leaders need the courage to jump in, to accept that you don’t know everything and to make the best choices you can.”

Dr Sally Cudmore is speaking as part of a UCC in-person event entitled ‘Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs’ on Thursday, 19 January.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic