Interview with APC co-founder Mark Barrett: ‘Strategy is nothing without passion’

19 Feb 2016

APC co-founders Mark Barrett and Brian Glennon. Photo credit: Naoise Culhane

Ireland’s reputation as the world’s go-to location for pharmachem and biotech has been bolstered by the emergence of APC, an indigenous start-up that has just announced 100 new jobs and which has engineered itself to be the lynchpin of product strategy for the world’s biggest pharma giants.

Like most Irish success stories, APC was born out of friendship. Dr Mark Barrett’s family became quite friendly with UCD Professor Brian Glennon when his older brother studied chemistry at UCD and, when Mark’s turn to go to university came about, the friendship got stronger. Little did anyone realise that, a few years later, it would result in a business that could put Ireland on the map for product strategy in the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical business.

Earlier this week, we reported that pharmaceutical research start-up APC had opened its new headquarters at Cherrywood Business Park, creating 100 new jobs for highly-skilled chemical engineers, scientists and analysts.

The company, which was formed by Barrett and Glennon in 2011, is currently partnered with eight of the 10 largest pharmaceutical companies in the sector, as well as half of the major biotech firms. In just four years, the company has grown revenues to €15m and is targeting this to grow to €50m a year within five years.

Aside from being the company’s headquarters, the new Cherrywood building will also be APC’s highly-advanced process research facility for biopharmaceuticals in the processes of informatics, and other advanced analytical means, to help streamline the development of its medicines in various fields, including cancer and HIV.

‘Everybody can relate to critical, life-saving medicine but that is only half the story. Discovering a molecule that can save lives is only part of the story’

“We’re not ones to brag or market our position, we are actually quite insular in terms of culture,” Barrett, who acts as the company’s CEO, says with disarming honesty.

As he explains it, APC, which he says was born out of the recession, is a testament to what can be done if people think clearly about opportunities, and back that strategy with passion and a will to succeed.

“Everybody can relate to critical, life-saving medicine, but that is only half the story. Discovering a molecule that can save lives is only part of the story. To translate a miracle molecule discovered somewhere in the world into an actual medicine that can be prescribed is a really complicated thing. It requires a lot of science and engineering and this is a challenge even for the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

“That’s where APC comes in; we figure out how those molecules can be made into products.

“Medicine isn’t commoditised. The amount of engineering and science it takes to make these products is extraordinary and Ireland has a great track record at bringing engineering to the table.

“We are in the research element, not the manufacturing. We have developed a unique technology and software and we have the brightest staff. 80pc of our staff are at PhD level, which makes us the largest employer of PhDs in Ireland.”

Chemistry is in Ireland’s DNA

Barrett says APC’s origins can be found at Lab 113 in UCD.

“I did my undergraduate PhD and post-doc in the UCD School of Chemical Engineering and I went to work at Merck. But it was my personal friendship with Brian – my brother was Brian’s first PhD student – that led to APC.”

Engineering is a family affair for Barrett. All three of the Barrett brothers are engineers, two chemical and one civil. “My dad had his own business and has plenty of entrepreneurial spirit, while my mother was never one to rest until something was done. On reflection, these qualities shaped me into the person I am today.

“Brian was always a guy who put his students’ successes ahead of his own, which is unusual in the academic world. Back in 2011, we sat down at Lab 113 and we discussed what we could do, we believed in our capabilities and felt we could offer something not prevalent in the chemical world and we came up with APC, which stands for Applied Process Company.”

In just five years’ time, APC has become a lynchpin of the pharmachem and biotech ecosystem in Ireland. “We help translate drug discoveries and turn them into a product that can be manufactured around the world and given to patients.”


APC co-founders Mark Barrett and Brian Glennon. Photo: Naoise Culhane

‘When we boarded the plane it hit us – we had no team, no technology developed at that stage and we were on the edge, chancing our arm, but we definitely believed in our technical ability’

Barrett believes the scale and footprint of the pharmachem industry is not very clearly understood within Ireland itself. “As a country, we manufacture 50pc of the global supply of active pharma ingredients and this is worth around €40bn in exports every year.

“As a result, the country has a huge number of highly-skilled engineers, scientists, analysts and researchers.

“The evolution of APC was a logical step because it underpins future product development and it really is pureplay R&D. Every engineer, scientist, biochemist and analyst at APC gets to work in an environment where they know every day they are doing something potentially world-changing.”

After a number of years in the pharmachem industry, Barrett caught up with Glennon and discussed an idea they had fostered during their years as student and teacher.

“We started to engage with the pharma sector and a number of people said they really believed in us and that we had value to bring to the table and this was huge for us because we just decided there and then to book flights to the US.

“When we boarded the plane it hit us – we had no team, no technology developed at that stage and we were on the edge, chancing our arm, but we definitely believed in our technical ability.”

This self-belief was pivotal and carried the day. “On the flight back it sunk in. We had won a few contracts and I remember the two of us couldn’t wait to get back to the lab, crunch the numbers and give it a go and make the most of the opportunity. We knew we were on the cusp of something and that there was a global opportunity beyond research in an academic setting.”

Out of the teeth of recession

Technical ability is critical to the APC story and Barrett said that hiring is focused on the best international minds. Among the existing workforce are 60 qualified chemical engineers.

“We are concentrating on building a world-class team. We currently work with eight out of the 10 top pharma giants and five out of the 10 top biotech players worldwide. Our role is to help them accelerate the development of medicine and it is incredible to be an Irish company playing a part in the journey of lifesaving drugs.”

Back in 2011, Barrett and Glennon took a big bet on a major global opportunity with little other than the shirts on their backs and a firm belief in their abilities. “We were born out of the teeth of the recession. No one was writing a big cheque for us.”

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

In 2013, APC got 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’. We didn’t go out looking for venture capital and we weren’t focused on profit. When we got our first payment up front from a customer that went straight into investing in people and technology.

“We are very conservative about how we want to grow the company. We don’t want to compromise our technical integrity by growing beyond our grasp. We have been growing at a rate of 100pc a year from day one.

“Our vision is to create a global organisation that will impact patients all over the world and to build a facility that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Barrett said.

Barrett is just one example of what is possible if students are encouraged to excel in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and he believes engineering needs to be better understood in Irish schools.

“When I went into chemical engineering and understood that it could make people’s lives better, that had me hooked.

“STEM, particularly engineering and maths, needs to be better marketed and canvassed in schools.

“People understand what a bank is but do they understand what a scientist or engineer does? We aren’t encouraging young people to make that connection intuitively and, as a result, they don’t understand how to make a career out of it.”

Barrett concludes that he was lucky to grow up in a family where engineering, entrepreneurship and a good work ethic were prized.

“My brothers were heavily involved in engineering and my parents’ example taught me a lot about entrepreneurship and caring. That made me into the person I am today.

“You can have great strategy, but if there’s no passion there it’s not going to happen.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years