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Inside the Irish company planning to produce millions of Covid vaccines


More than a decade after the creation of the company he co-founded, Dr Mark Barrett can still recount the deal that made it all possible.

“We were invited over to a big pharmaceutical company in the US,” he recalls. “Someone very senior said ‘We’ve heard about what you’re doing’ and they invited us over.

“We had no money, we had no team, no real technology to do anything about this, and I remember on the flight over formulating slides about how we were going to add value and help him with his problems.”

When he and his co-founder, Prof Brian Glennon, arrived in the US, they learned that the company in question was under pressure to bring a medicine to market which would help treat schizophrenia. Barrett and Glennon pitched their credentials and, with the company showing interest, they asked for some money upfront to fund such a project. “To this day, [that] was the most important money I’ve got from a company.”

In essence, that sum – a relatively meagre €25,000 – validated the ideas both Barrett and Glennon had about how to improve the pharmaceutical research and manufacturing processes and led to the establishment in March 2011 of APC.

In the 10 years since, Barrett as chief executive and Glennon as chief technology officer have built their pharmaceutical research company into one that now boasts revenues of €26 million, with well laid plans to expand into the manufacture of vaccines as well as cell and gene therapies.

Just last week, the company announced a €25 million investment plan. Of that, €17 million will go into the creation of a new business – VLE Therapeutics – which will operate as a separate concern to manufacture vaccines among other things. The remainder of the money will be used to bulk up their existing operation by hiring additional staff and opening new lab space.

At present, the company is developing about 30 different medicines from its Cherrywood base. “Everything from oncology to respiratory-based vaccines to Covid vaccines to neurology,” explains Barrett.

“There are medicines being developed here that are not being developed [anywhere] else in the world in any company, even the biggest pharma companies.”

Scaling up

To explain APC’s work in simple terms, a pharmaceutical company will come up with a molecule that may cure or treat an ailment. APC then focuses on recreating the recipe of that molecule, which must be the same every time, and then designs a process to manufacture that treatment at scale.

One needn’t look further than the debacle with Covid-19 vaccine deliveries in Europe earlier this year to understand how some pharmaceutical companies find these processes very challenging.

Of course, many of those companies are the experts in identifying a drug to treat something and the subsequent marketing of that drug. In effect, APC takes care of the bits in between. How? “The depth we have in our category is world renowned. The fact the teams can focus purely on the recipe to make the molecule – that’s really unique,” says Barrett.

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From their office in south Dublin, the company currently employs about 140 staff, 90 per cent of whom have PhDs. There are plans to add an additional 120 jobs, almost half of which will be filled in the coming four months.

Becca Dunne, an APC process development engineer III, is pictured at work. Photograph: Andres Poveda
Becca Dunne, an APC process development engineer III, is pictured at work. Photograph: Andres Poveda

The reason behind this rapid expansion is the desire to strike while the iron is hot in respect of the move into vaccine manufacturing. As it stands, the group is already developing a Covid-19 vaccine with Australian biotechnology company Vaxine. It has also been involved in the development of other vaccines, but Barrett says those relationships are “commercially sensitive”.

In any event, their expansion means that, by the end of this year, the group will have what they say is “the ability to make millions [of Covid vaccine doses] a year”. When their current investment programme concludes in 2023, and they add a 7,432sq m (80,000sq ft) manufacturing facility to their portfolio, Barrett says the company’s production capacity will increase to “tens of millions” of doses.

On an island with a dearth of vaccine-manufacturing capability, the State clearly doesn’t want to be caught short on this front again. APC’s expansion is clearly of strategic importance, a fact that explains backing it has received in the form of grant aid from Enterprise Ireland.

Barrett notes that the pandemic pushed the company to decide to engage in its largest-ever expansion. Additionally, they opted “to spin out some of our intellectual property and customers. We decided we don’t want to distract APC’s focus from [research] so that’s where we came up with VLE Therapeutics,” he says.

Would it simply have been more straightforward to operate the whole company under the one name?

“It’s like asking an artist to be creative and asking an artist to mass produce and manufacture. They’re very different,” he says. Despite the demarcation, nothing will change from an ownership perspective – Barrett and Glennon will each retain 50 per cent of the entire company. In many respects this is an impressive feat for a company with the ambitions that APC has.

Funding

The absence of external funding stems from the fact the company was born during the financial crisis. “There was talk of no money coming out of the bank links, never mind [funding for] some random scientific idea.”

So while they didn’t actively shun private equity or venture capital, Barrett is glad those funding streams weren’t open to them. “We wouldn’t have been allowed do the thing we’ve done [if we had venture funding],” he says.

To those who know Barrett, maybe the company’s success is not surprising. Clearly, he’s something of a wunderkind. His academic journey started with an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in University College Dublin (UCD).

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In his third year of that course he did an internship with Nasa – the US government agency responsible for the US space programme. It was there, under the mentorship of astronaut Winston Scott, that his inclination to pursue further academia was encouraged. “I got to meet scientists and engineers who were trying to take on the biggest problems in the world and I thought that’s something I can be a part of.”

His internship involved research on growing plants in environments like that on the planet Mars. So “blown away by the whole experience” was he, he decided thereafter to pursue a PhD in UCD under the supervision of Glennon. That involved an examination of how to scale up the processes surrounding drug manufacturing.

As Barrett explains, “figuring out how to do these things at a small scale is one thing, but figuring out how to mass produce it is another scientific discipline”.

With Glennon, he found ways to decrease the cost of what can often be a multibillion-euro scaling-up process, while at the same time increasing the speed at which drugs can be brought to market.

With his PhD, Barrett took a job with Schering-Plough, a company that has since merged with pharmaceuticals giant Merck. There he realised that, even in some of the world’s biggest companies, “there’s still huge room and potential for innovation”. And so, a year-and-a-half later he left to return to UCD to do postdoctoral research, again with Glennon.

Over the course of the following three years, the pharmaceutical industry began to get interested in progress the pair were making and suddenly they were being asked to meet pharmaceutical executives in the US.

In the beginning, their company rented laboratory space from UCD. They hired their first staff member about January 2012. “There was no money,” says Barrett. “But we felt with the science and our entrepreneurial spirit that we could go on to achieve something.”

It’s great to say that I’ve been able to share the experience with my mom

As the company gained momentum, Barrett began to sketch out goals. One was that they’d eventually build their own headquarters. By the end of 2013, they were coming close to finding a premises. But on December 23rd, 2013, the deal for 929sq m (10,000sq ft) of space fell through.

“We thought about it over Christmas, we came back, met the landlord for here [Cherrywood] and we signed for 60,000sq ft,” recalls Barrett. Why the sixfold increase? “We really challenged ourselves to be more ambitious.”

During the first five years, he and Glennon put in the “sweat equity”. His week consisted of travelling to the US for up to three days a week before coming back to Dublin to work on the research side of the business. Barrett describes that time as being a “sphere of anxiety”.

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“I had to earn my stripes in the battle,” he reflects. “Never once did I question our ability to make it happen. I just felt that if we focus on the innovation and being different the rest will come.”

And so it did. The company intends to increase its turnover to in excess of €50 million by 2024, if not earlier. In five years, Barrett expects turnover to exceed €70 million.

Journey of science

But the money is not something he focuses on. In his venture out into the working world in the aftermath of his PhD, he says he “didn’t feel rewarded”. “The thing that has been consistent in my character is that I love the journey of science and where it can take you.”

A love for science is one thing. Being able to monetise that love is something else entirely. Barrett attributes his commercial brain to his father’s publishing business, a business in which he spent part of his summers when he was growing up. His mother also worked in the business and, when his father closed up that business, she joined APC, where she works to this day.

“It’s great to say that I’ve been able to share the experience with my mom,” says Barrett.

Of course he also had regular interests, such as sport, as a child. Standing at 6ft 5in, his rugby talents were felt in the secondrow or in the number six position. Rugby had to end when APC began to take off, however.

“I had to stop playing rugby when the black eyes and the stitches in my face were being talked about when I travelled to America as being no longer appropriate. People in Ireland get that but in the [United] States they were thinking: ‘Who is this guy coming in with a black eye?’” Despite that, he remains a fitness aficionado.

Between that, the recent birth of his daughter, and APC’s planned expansion, Barrett is undoubtedly a busy man. While there may be different challenges, there’s nothing to suggest that the coming decade will be any quieter for him than the last one.

By the same token, there’s nothing to suggest he’d want it any other way.

CV

Name: Dr Mark Barrett

Position: Chief executive and co-founder of APC

Age: 38

Lives: Dublin

Family: Wife Zahra and daughter Zoë Zareen.

Leadership style: “I’ve very passionate and compassionate as a leader. What the team do here is extraordinary and I always try to be empathic to the challenges they face from a scientific perspective or a personal perspective.”

Something you might expect: Barrett enjoyed the book Shoe Dog, a memoir by Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike. The book explores that company’s early difficulties and ultimate success.

Something that might surprise: Barrett loves gardening. “It’s quite peaceful. I love getting the grass in good shape.”




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