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Paving the Way for Women in Science: An Interview with Two Leading Women in Irish BioTech (Part 2)

In our quest to find out if women are still treated differently in the workplace, this is part 2 of our interview with two leading women in BioTech...

Barrie Dowsett

Chief Executive Officer


10 minute read

As R&D tax relief and innovation grant specialists, Myriad Associates work with many inspiring people, across all industries, to help them secure funding to develop their ground-breaking products, services and processes.

A large percentage of these successful companies and R&D projects are run by women.

So, we decided to sit down with these influential female leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs to find out what it takes to make it to the top of their industry as a female. As part of this ‘inspiring women in business series’, we interviewed Avectas co-founder and CSO Shirley O’Dea and Executive Chair of the Board of Directors Mary Martin.

During part 1 of this interview, we discovered what made Mary and Shirley choose the pharmaceutical industry, what aspired them when they were younger, who their mentors were and what their proudest moments have been, so far.
Time to pick up from where we left off.

Do you feel you’ve had a tougher journey to the top compared to your male peers?

Shirley: When I first saw this question, I thought no. There haven’t been any actual barriers preventing me from getting to where I am today. But, 25 years ago, when I was just starting out in my career, I was very conscious about the lack of female role models at the time. It did make me wonder why. Why aren’t women doing this? Why aren’t they becoming professors? Why are there no well-known female scientists? So I did wonder about that and also how I would be perceived.

But now, it’s actually wonderful to see how much the situation has changed over the past 20 years, just in terms of females coming through in these leadership positions, be it in academia or industry.

Mary: I’ve always worked with men in senior positions, but I’ve never felt like I was a woman working with men. We were always just a team of people working together.

So, I never felt like I was being held back because of my gender. I was fortunate to work in environments where if you were smart and you worked hard, you were afforded the same opportunities for development as anybody else.

However, now that I am in a more visible, senior role and older, I do realise that role models are important to younger people, and I truly understand that expression “you can’t be what you can’t see”. It’s incredibly important to help other people, and other women, realise that you can be whatever you want to be.

Are equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives part of the Avectas company ethos?

Mary: Absolutely. We are passionate about creating an inclusive work environment that values equality and diversity. It’s something that we’re immensely proud of. For instance, gender equality comes from our board and senior leadership and permeates all levels of the company.

What’s the most challenging part of your role as a Chair / CSO?

Mary: As a scientist, I often find it hard to stay out of all the technical detail. This is one of the most exciting times in medicine in my career. Cell therapies, based on complex cell engineering, are dramatically changing the prognosis for people living with cancer!

Shirley: I think my biggest challenge is making sure we’re keeping up with the fast-moving cell therapy sector that we’re in. Anyone who’s been involved in biopharmaceuticals over the past few decades is really excited to see the cell therapy sector emerge.

We’re now talking about using cells as drugs which is tremendously exciting. We’re seeing incredible advances and breakthroughs all the time, which means that the sector is expanding really, really fast. Because it’s such a young and diverse market, the biggest challenge we face as a company is to keep up with the scientific advances that are being made and also make sure that our technology meets the market need.

What’s the most rewarding part of your role as a Chair / CSO?

Shirley: We have a fantastic team at Avectas. They’re all highly motivated people who all contribute in different ways, from different backgrounds. And for me, it’s seeing this team deliver on our goals and getting our technology delivered and adopted in such a fast-moving sector. That’s the really rewarding bit. There’s this sense that we’re all in it together.

Mary: I’d echo that. For me, it’s seeing all the different elements of Avectas – the science, the business and the technology – all coming together and seeing all our team in Avectas truly contribute to the development of a breakthrough technology that will be used to develop new cell therapies.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career, and did it pay off?

Mary: Twice I left big companies to get involved with start-ups. I left the security and the comfort of knowing exactly what I was doing to get involved with setting up start-up companies in new therapeutic areas. I jumped from a comfortable position in an established company into a new territory. Definitely the biggest risks I’ve taken, but also the most personally rewarding.

What made you want to do that?

Mary: When companies reach a certain size, they naturally become slower moving: the decision making takes longer, progress is slower to see, and your own individual contribution starts diminishing. I wanted to take the skills I’d learned and apply them to a new area of drug development and be part of growing something from scratch in Ireland.

I’m very proud to be Irish and feel very strongly that Ireland is one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to pharmaceutics and biologics and will be a leader in the emerging new area of cell and gene therapy.

Shirley: I think for me it’s got to be setting up Avectas. Going from an idea that you’ve been tossing around to suddenly becoming responsible for employees and their careers and investors and their financial backing was a huge risk for me. But I’d say the risk is paying off at the moment. Our company is growing, and we have fantastic investors; we’re very, very fortunate to have the investors that we have. As a company, we’re so dedicated to delivering for our employees and for our investors.

How do you juggle work commitments and your personal life?

Shirley: I feel fortunate that I love what I do. I love the science and I’ve loved the journey I’ve had so far. So that makes the hard times a little easier. But you do have to find a balance. Since my PhD days, I’ve always worked long hours during the week and then where possible tried to take the weekends for personal life. So that’s one way that I manage to find a balance between work and my personal, family life.

Mary: Like Shirley, I’m passionate about what I do. I do try to take the weekends off though and if I choose to work at the weekend, it’s because I believe it’s really necessary, as opposed to doing it out of habit.

I’m also a big believer in blocking out time at the beginning of the year for holidays. If you don’t have personal time in your diary at the very beginning of the year it becomes very difficult to take time off: there’s always something that has to be done the next day or the next week.

I also think exercise is important to help clear the head and is a good counterbalance to long working hours.

What’s your advice for aspiring women Chairs / CSO’s?

Mary: I would say, learn your trade and keep learning it. Whether it’s technical, business, self-development, or leadership skills, keep learning the whole time.
Listen to people and observe how others interact and learn.

Also, never be afraid to say you don’t understand something, especially if you’re in a technical environment. You get a few opportunities at the beginning to say, “I don’t understand” and I admire the people that do that. People that feel like they can’t say “I don’t understand” end up bluffing their way through their careers. Establish a solid foundation of knowledge, learn your skills, learn your trade and don’t set any limits.

Shirley: To someone aspiring to be a CSO, I’d say back yourself and give it a try. Like Mary says, don’t set any limits. The point about listening to people is important too. Listen to what people have to say, back yourself and give it a try.

You recently won funding from the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund. Can you explain what you plan to do with it and why?

Mary: Avectas, in collaboration with BlueBridge Technologies and the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research & Training (NIBRT), will use the DTIF funding, which we won with the help of Myriad Associates, to develop SOLUPORE® FTS so it’s ready for preclinical and clinical trials by cell therapy developers.


Shirley: SOLUPORE® FTS is a validated, compliant and digitalised cellular engineering system designed to produce cell therapy cancer treatments with a focus on allogeneic (off-the-shelf) therapies and solid tumours.

What difference will this funding make to both Avectas and also society?

Mary: From an Avectas point of view it allows us to prioritise this project. This funding allows us to put this allogeneic scale, cell engineering system on a prioritised fast track. From a societal point of view, SOLUPORE® FTS will be a large-scale cell engineering platform that will allow the manufacture of large numbers of engineered cells which means more patients can be treated for diseases such as cancer. The SOLUPORE® technology is gentle on cells, allow complex editing of a broad range of cell types.

What’s been the biggest contributor to your success in these leadership positions?

Mary: I suppose I’ve always had a natural curiosity about science, biology and medicine and that curiosity – even 30 years into my career – has never gone away.

But I think it’s the time and commitment I put into continually learning my trade that’s helped me. I’m a big advocate of lifelong learning.

I’ve worked for over 30 years in different areas of medicine and science, and I’m still learning from scratch because cell and gene therapy is a whole new area of science. So, for me, my success comes from a willingness and desire to continuously learn new technical and business skills.

I also think the opportunity to work with smart, passionate and inspiring people has been a major contributor.

Shirley: I really enjoy working in a team, particularly in an interdisciplinary setting. My co-founder Michael, who I’ve been working with for over 15 years, Mary who I’ve been working with for five years, our board, our investors and our colleagues at Avectas are all really important to me and are all behind the success we’ve had today.

To wrap things up

What a refreshingly open interview with two leading women in BioTech: Shirley O’Dea and Mary Martin.

Talking to Mary and Shirley gave me an interesting and honest insight into what it’s like, as a female, to be in a leadership position within a male-dominated industry. It was inspiring and not at all what I expected if I’m honest.

The opportunities for women are there and they are ready to grasp if you believe in yourself, learn your trade and take what lessons you can from industry experts, like Mary and Shirley.

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