Top start-up advice from this pharmacist-turned-founder

19 Jun 2024

Image: © Nuthawut/

As the InvestHer Summit kicks off, health-tech entrepreneur Leonora O’Brien shares her journey and advice for future founders.

Leonora O’Brien spent many years in pharmacy, both in patient-facing and management roles as well as in the area of policymaking and regulation. However, she eventually used her skills and experience to become a health-tech entrepreneur when she decided to create a system she couldn’t find.

“One role I held was that of superintendent pharmacist for the Unicare Pharmacy Group, was the largest pharmacy group in Ireland,” she told

“This role came with legal responsibility for compliance and patient safety. I searched for a system where our pharmacies could record, review and quickly analyse patient safety issues but there was no suitable system available on the market.”

During that time, O’Brien said the sheer volume of manual data entry required, along with outdated technologies, meant there were no real insights on what needed to be improved.

“You can’t improve what you can’t measure, so I decided to develop a cloud-based SaaS solution, which healthcare professionals could use to input and track patient safety issues and put preventative measures in place to keep patients safe,” she said. This platform became Pharmapod, which O’Brien launched in 2012. The company’s assets were acquired by Toronto-based Think Research in 2021.

“I was always attracted to the power of technology and its potential to help us analyse large datasets and deliver a solution at scale – I wanted to reach as many professionals and patients as possible.”

‘Your first five hires, I believe, are one of the primary determinants of how far your business will go’

The friends we make along the way

Throughout her entrepreneurial journey, O’Brien has had many wonderful mentors, including Mary Rose Burke who is  a pharmacist and the current CEO of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. Burke was the superintendent of Boots when O’Brien was at Unicare and O’Brien said they had a “shared vision for patient safety”.

“I believe what’s important in a mentor is someone with integrity, someone who supports you holistically and brings a positive energy. Mary Rose has all of those qualities in spades. Mentors need to be there through thick and thin, not just when the going is good, because there will be extraordinary ups and downs along the way. When choosing a mentor they say to ‘choose people who will say your name in a room full of opportunities’, in fact these are the only people you should surround yourself with,” O’Brien said.

“I also participated in the NDRC accelerator programme, which was a total immersion into the world of SaaS. It helped us put rigour around building a scalable product and business model as well as challenging our value proposition. It encouraged us to get out and secure early adopter customers whose feedback helped us shape the system for future users. The mentors on the programme were a key part of our journey.”

Sending the ladder back down

After launching Pharmapod, O’Brien proved to be an extremely successful entrepreneur. In 2017, she was part of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women programme and in 2020, she was a finalist in the EY Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year competition.

She said the Entrepreneurial Winning Women provides access to mentorship and structured workshops, giving participants opportunities to meet international women founders who are also scaling their businesses.

“Since everyone has had to reach a certain revenue level to get on the program, everywhere you turn there are high-value conversations being had as well as partnerships and business connections being created between participants across the world.”

With the start-up journey she has had and the mentorship she received, it’s no surprise that O’Brien wants to send the ladder back down to other women founders and offer guidance where she can.

She’s actively involved in Going for Growth and Inspiring Women, two initiatives designed to assist women entrepreneuers as they grow their businesses. O’Brien is one of the lead entrepreneurs, helping the founders who take part.

“Participants sign up to a cycle of roundtable sessions where each entrepreneur sets their goals and hold each other to account for achieving their milestones. It serves as an accountability group but also as an important safe space where founders can share their challenges confidentially,” she said. “It is a privilege, not only to learn about all the amazing companies involved, but also to see how the founders support each other and how openly they share their contacts and ideas on how to solve each other’s challenges.”

A headshot of a woman wearing a black blazer smiling at the camera. She is Leonora O'Brien.

Image: Leonora O’Brien

O’Brien also serves as the European jury president for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, for which she encourages all early-stage women founders to consider applying, having won it herself in 2013.

“There is a significant monetary prize, but the alumni network also get access to a platform where they can reach out to other founders in different countries to build connections, share resources and explore business opportunities,” she said.

“The programme is open to women-run and women-owned businesses from any country and sector that are driving important changes in the world – for example in sustainability, healthcare or solving problems such as social or financial inequalities … Many lifelong relationships are forged through this program, as it connects like-minded people across the world.”

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

With a wealth of experience under her belt, O’Brien continues to foster the next generation of entrepreneurs. She is the co-founder of the Founder Framework, which aims to help founders become ‘high-reliability founders’.

O’Brien is also one of the speakers at the InvestHer Summit, which starts in Dublin today (19 June). The event will bring together women entrepreneurs, investors and organisations from within the funding ecosystem. Ahead of her own talk on 21 June, O’Brien shared her top advice for aspiring founders.

“Put as much rigour as possible around your hires. All your hires, but especially your first five hires. Your first five hires, I believe, are one of the primary determinants of how far your business will go. Rigour may involve simply not ignoring your own red flags, as well as steps like psychometric testing as part of a selection process and being extremely thorough with reference checking,” she said.

“Hire for both skill and attitude. If a candidate has a skills gap, you can address that, but if something is amiss in terms of attitude, no amount of skills will compensate for this. I would recommend getting some HR input here as they will help you avoid costly hiring mistakes.”

She also said it’s important that founders change their mindset from the “always busy” person who “wears many different hats” to someone whose role is simply to create an effective system. “If you don’t focus on setting up a system, you will find it hard to scale and to get to a point where you’re able to work on your business instead of in your business.”

Finally, O’Brien said founders need to be mindful of who they surround themselves with and consider the energy people bring in. “Your energy is a critical part of your personal resilience and in turn, the resilience of your business. Things that chip away at your energy will chip away at your business resilience,” she said.

“Think of all the things that improve your energy – anything from positive thinking, exercise, sales momentum and learning new skills to having an adviser or colleague that says, ‘don’t worry, we’ll get there’. The word ‘we’ is a powerful word, when we hear it said and when we say it to others. Most importantly, try to enjoy the journey as much as you can.”

InvestHer Summit takes place in the Dublin Royal Convention Centre from 19 to 21 June 2024. Book your tickets to attend now.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic