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Paving the Way for Women in Science: An Interview with Two Leading Women in Irish BioTech (Part 1)

Are women still treated differently in the workplace? Is it harder for them to get to the top than men? I sat down with two leading women in BioTech to find out their thoughts...

Barrie Dowsett

Chief Executive Officer


10 minute read

Reports show that for every 100 men that get promoted to senior management or board level positions, only 72 women receive the same promotion.

And, while men are praised in the boardroom for being tenacious, go-getters, women are criticized for being too aggressive and bossy (have you ever heard a man being referred to as bossy?).

Why is that? Is there still, in 2021, a slight gender bias towards men in the workplace? Is it the same across all industries, or are some worse than others? Is it harder for women to get to the top than it is for men?

Myriad Associates, R&D tax and innovation grant specialists, work with many inspiring female CEOs, Chairs and Founders to help them secure funding for their ground-breaking projects.

So, we decided to take the opportunity to sit down with these female powerhouses and find out what it’s really like at the top of the organisational tree for them, as women.

The first interview is with Avectas co-founder and CSO Shirley O’Dea and Executive Chair of the Board of Directors Mary Martin. Two intelligent and inspiring women who clearly have a strong bond with each other. They were open, honest and incredibly modest, considering the positions they hold within Avectas.

See for yourself.

Meet Mary Martin and Shirley O’Dea

Shirley O’Dea is the co-founder and CSO of Avectas: a pioneering cell engineering technology business that’s improving the cost, manufacturing and patient outcomes for the next generation of cellular therapies.

Shirley, alongside business partner and CEO Michael Maguire, founded Avectas in 2012. In addition to serving on the Board of Directors, Shirley is also responsible for evaluating and overseeing all of the Avectas internal and external scientific programs.

Outside of her busy work-life, Shirley loves nothing more than a game of tennis or winding down with her three teenage children and husband, who put life into perspective with funny stories from their day and cosying up on the couch to watch old movies.

Mary Martin is the Executive Chair of the Board of Directors for Avectas. With over 30 years of experience in drug delivery technology, product development and commercialisation of small molecules, biopharmaceuticals and ATMPs, Mary leads the Avectas board of directors with clear conviction, ensuring the company remains a pioneering force within the biotech industry and achieves its vision of being the leading non-viral cell engineering technology.

After a long day, Mary loves a long walk on the beach, a good film, and gathering her closest friends around the dinner table.

Now we’ve met Mary and Shirley, let’s find out…

What made them choose the pharmaceutical industry as a career path?

Shirley: I’d always had an interest in applying new scientific knowledge and discoveries to improve human health in some way. And, although I started in academia, with 25 years in scientific research and teaching, it was this keen interest that led to the commercialisation of the research I was doing and the subsequent creation of Avectas.

Mary: I’d always had a love for biology, particularly human biology and how the body worked. So, I decided to study pharmacology which looks at how drugs affect the body and how the body affects drugs. I then went on to do a research-based PhD which I loved. But the PhD made me realize that I didn’t want to be an academic scientist, like Shirley, and continue an academic career. I wanted to discover and develop drugs and therapeutics, but always from an industrial and applied perspective.

What were their aspirations when they were younger?

Mary: I’d always aspired to be involved in the world of medicine. I didn’t set out to be the executive chair of a board, it was something that evolved throughout my career.

Shirley: I’d always enjoyed school and learning, and I was always curious about the world, curious about history, geography and science. So, my original plan was to stay in that learning type of environment. I thought about teaching initially. But then, I ended up absolutely falling in love with science at University, which changed things.

I had an opportunity, as an undergrad, to work for a large pharmaceutical company in the UK. That time was really helpful for me because it made me realise that I didn’t want to go straight into industry. I wanted to spend more time on the academic side to develop my basic knowledge and understanding. But I always had this strong desire to apply the knowledge I’d learned.

So, the progression towards commercializing my research and setting up a spin-out company, which is how Avectas started, happened naturally.

Did they have any mentors that helped or inspired them with their careers?

Mary: I’ve been fortunate enough to have had two great mentors in my career. Shirley knows this, but I can be often heard saying: “In the words of…”

When I was doing my PhD, I studied under the late neuropharmacologist Ciaran Regan,. Ciaran taught me so much about the whole discipline of science, particularly the robustness and rigour of scientific design, analysis and data interpretation. He taught me how to communicate it in the form of publications, and verbally in the form of presentations. He was absolutely exacting and a very tough taskmaster – but a magnificent mentor.

And then in industry, I worked on and off for about 20 years with another great scientist and leader, John Devane Not only did John teach me so much about pharmaceutical product development, but he also taught me more about the robustness of critical analysis and thinking.

He was the person who always stretched me in terms of my career progression. He continuously provided tougher challenges, moved me into technical and business areas that I was unfamiliar with and encouraged me towards leadership roles.

If he wasn’t formally assigned as a mentor, where did John come from?

Mary: John gave me my first job in a company called Elan, a leading drug delivery company, in 1989.

John left ELAN in 2001 to set up a start-up. I then joined him in 2003 to be Chief Operating Officer of a second start-up and we worked together for another decade. I learned all about the highs and lows of forming a company, taking a company public – and de-listing, alongside John.

Shirley: It was my PhD supervisor, Martin Clynes, who was very influential for me. He was a mentor for my PhD but more broadly speaking, Martin was also really ahead of his time in terms of balancing academic research with industry activities.
This was back in the 80s in Ireland when the biotech industry was just gathering steam. Martin was really influential in breaking down the silos that existed between academia and industry. I got trained in that environment so I learnt an awful lot from him about how the two sectors could work together successfully and innovatively. That was incredibly helpful to me because I became familiar with the language around intellectual property and the ways the sectors could work together. Because Martin was a pioneer at that stage, he opened my eyes to a new career path for me.

What have been their proudest moments, career-wise, so far?

Shirley: For the academic part of my career, I think seeing my PhD students graduate was hugely rewarding. I’m really, really proud of mentoring my students to a PhD level, and I’m also proud of all the discoveries and the work we did together. It was a hugely rewarding time.

On the industry side, it has to be what we’ve created through Avectas. We had this idea, and it was a very new idea that was disruptive and went against the grain of a long-standing sector which traditionally focused on using viruses to deliver molecules into cells.

Michael and I had a different vision though, and it was seeing the sector start to accept that idea, not just from us but also from a couple of other companies that were starting to emerge at the same time, that I feel most proud about. Seeing our idea validated as a good idea was really rewarding.

Mary: I think my proudest moments are centred around the people I work with. Vidara Therapeutics, was a start-up company that I was part of, based here in Ireland. The company was merged with the NASDAQ-listed Horizon Therapeutics in 2014. . At the time of the acquisition, we were a team of less than 10 in Ireland. But very quickly, our people and our product became core to Horizon’s overall strategy. Today there are in excess of 100 people working for Horizon, here in Ireland. I feel very proud that I helped make that happen and that Vidara was the nucleus of huge growth for Horizon.

A rather unusual proud moment for me was 2001 when Elan had to downsize and make hundreds of positions in Ireland redundant, including our advanced drug delivery group.

On the morning of my 38th Birthday, I had to stand up in front of my incredibly talented research team, who had been instrumental in developing new delivery technologies, and communicate that every single position within that team of 80 was being made redundant.

I’ll always remember someone coming up to me afterwards and thanking me. I said why are you thanking me for telling you that your position is redundant?! And she said, it’s the manner in which you did it. And that’s always stuck with me.
It’s easy to communicate good news to people but very difficult to communicate bad news. You really are obliged as a leader to do it as honestly, as fairly and as empathetically as possible.

On the subject of communication of bad news, in a previous company, having executed a successful IPO, we had a negative outcome in a phase III clinical trial. I am proud of the manner in which we took decisive action to discontinue the study and associated activities. We disappointed shareholders but acted with speed, transparency and integrity.

That’s it for part 1. Join us for part 2 where we’ll discover what the most challenging and rewarding parts of Mary and Shirley’s roles are, the biggest risks they’ve taken in their careers and what advice they’d give to other aspiring women looking to climb the corporate ladder.

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