The next Irish unicorn? Robert Fenton believes the life sciences industry globally is going through a once-in-a-generation transformation and he has made sure to be part of it. He started Qualio in Ireland in 2012 and moved it to San Francisco where it now works with 250 life sciences companies worldwide to safely bring products to market.

If you look at some of the biggest Irish tech entrepreneur stories of the past decade, one way or another all roads lead to or from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. There’s Intercom, which was founded in San Francisco by a group of Irish executives and is now one of Dublin’s biggest indigenous tech employers and valued at in excess of $1bn. There’s Stripe, which was founded in San Francisco by John and Patrick Collison by way of Nenagh and Limerick, and which is now one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable private companies valued at in excess of $95bn.

And the latest Irish entrepreneur to add to this esteemed list is Robert Fenton, CEO of San Francisco-based Qualio, an all-remote company that was founded in Ireland in 2012.

“There’s an explosion we are seeing right now in life sciences that is very similar to the explosion we saw in the software industry with the cloud”

In recent weeks ThinkBusiness reported that Qualio raised $50m in Series B funding in a round led by Tiger Global and including Menlo Ventures and current investors Frontline Ventures, MHS Capital, Operator Partners, Sorenson Ventures, and Storm Ventures.

This brings to $63m the amount of funding led by the Irish-founded company to date, including the $11m it raised in a Series A round last year.

Scaling fast

Over the last year, Qualio has experienced unprecedented customer demand, including more than 260pc revenue growth year-over-year. To support this demand, Qualio has focused on value-driven hiring — including tripling the size of their team in 2020.

The company now has more than 250 customers across the globe, spanning the medical device, pharmaceutical, biotech, and contract service provider markets. Customers include notable organisations such as Medable, Paula’s Choice Skincare, Proscia, and Ginkgo Bioworks.

So, what is Qualio all about? As modern life sciences companies look to accelerate industry innovation and disruption, they cannot afford to have inefficient quality management slow down product accessibility. According to McKinsey, this is creating a surge in demand for new technologies that unite disparate teams, tools, and data in a seamless virtual work environment.

Qualio’s cloud quality management software supports life sciences organisations with technology and services that allow them to seamlessly manage critical quality processes across their entire supply chain.

It walked from north Cork

Fenton told ThinkBusiness that his story began in north Cork. “I grew up in the countryside but always really loved science and technology. That continued into representing Ireland in chemistry [at the 36th International Chemistry Olympiad] and after my Leaving Cert I continued into studying pharmacy at UCC.”

A brief stint working as a pharmacist was followed by an internship at Pfizer working on some of the biggest drug products. “While I was there I kind of became this human machine interface between the quality teams and the systems they used. So this summer job turned out to be incredibly valuable as a point of learning for me.”

This experience was followed by R&D and drug development roles with LEO Pharma in Dublin. During this time, he developed a fascination with safety and quality control and how difficult it was for companies to consistently deliver and guarantee safe products for patients. That challenge became an itch that the young entrepreneur wanted to solve.

First, he established EasySOP in Dublin to provide compliance content and services to pharmacies and quickly became a market leader with around 500 Irish pharmacies using the platform.

“I was aware that a lot of the problems on delivering safe drug products came down to the lack of integrated systems; everything down to the right documents, traceability and demonstrating that you saw a problem, solved that problem and that’s the challenge. And first I saw it wasn’t just the big pharma companies that had these problems.

“But overall quality control and safe delivery of products is a problem that affected all companies in the industry, large and small.”

Quality and velocity

Fenton ploughed the revenues generated by EasySOP into R&D for his biggest challenge yet, Qualio, which would tackle the quality management issue at the scale of global pharma giants.

“These companies cannot make a choice between quality or velocity. They need both. They need to be able to move with speed and quality and that’s the promise that Qualio makes”

“I invested in R&D and developed the prototypes and won the backing of the NDRC in Dublin. At the time you start off with a problem that you find interesting and then it develops over time.”

Crucially, Fenton could also spot seismic changes coming to the life sciences industry and wanted to be a part of it. “We’re seeing the market evolve faster than ever. There’s a new paradigm being created in the life sciences ecosystem and the new breed of life sciences companies don’t look like the pharma giants of previous decades. They are faster-moving, smaller and nimbler companies that partner together to take products to market and scale. And so there’s an explosion we are seeing right now in life sciences that is very similar to the explosion we saw in the software industry with the cloud.

“It’s a complete transformation of the landscape and there is a desperate need for quality. These companies cannot make a choice between quality or velocity. They need both. They need to be able to move with speed and quality and that’s the promise that Qualio makes.”

But as Fenton sees it, the ecosystem he is targeting consists of the existing industry pharma giants as well as the emerging new breed of life sciences companies. And this is a global market that extends from California to Europe and Asia, including the Irish life sciences sector that employs over 50,000 people and exports more than €45bn of product annually.

If you’re going to San Francisco

Asked about the decision to move to San Francisco to grow Qualio, Fenton says it is a question he gets asked a lot but believes the answer is obvious.

“I think you have to move quickly and with conviction when you’re trying to build a company that does something as important as ensuring quality management in an industry as important as life sciences. Most of our customers in 2015 were coming from the US. We made a trip over and looked at Boston and San Francisco and it became clear that the ecosystem we needed to be a part of was the Bay Area if we were to stack the odds in our favour of becoming a global company. So I decided I was going to put myself there with the conviction that I was going to build an enormously successful company. My wife and I decided to take a bet on moving here and as a company we’ve always been an all-remote to the core. I’m a firm believer that you don’t all have to be in one location and the world is a big place.”

San Francisco, Fenton explained, offered him an opportunity to learn how great global companies are built. “Another of the most important things about the Bay Area is the openness and how willing enormously successful people were to share the playbook of how they did it. You see these peoples’ names in the newspapers all the time, but they are human too and they will sit down with you and take you seriously, even before you’ve had a chance to prove yourself. And I have found those lessons extremely valuable.”

Fenton describes the transformation of the life sciences industry – especially since the Covid-19 pandemic – as a once in a generation experience. The speed alone with which vaccines were researched, produced and delivered to billions of people in a relatively short period crystalises this.

But at the core of public consciousness about life sciences is safety and quality, says Fenton. And notable delays of vaccines at the start of the process due to quality management failures prove his point. But equally, the ability of pharma giants to correct their missteps rapidly was ground-breaking.

“You can actually do a great job and do it quickly, if you care. And I think that’s going to be the new standard.”

Scaling effectively

Fenton is less concerned about competition and more concerned about scaling effectively. He plans to grow the company from its present headcount of 100 to 200 people by the end of the year.

“We’ve doubled our headcount at least once this year and we’ll probably do it again before the end of this year”

Equally challenging is deploying the capital he has raised. “We’ve raised more than $60m in 12 months, which we could try to deploy in a quarter. But what would happen is you could implode. Most companies die of indigestion and not digested by competitors. And that’s the thing that most people forget. We are both our greatest assets and our worst enemies. Our job is to continuously deploy more each quarter at the fastest rate, and to do that in a way that’s effective. We’ve doubled our headcount at least once this year and we’ll probably do it again before the end of this year.”

Looking back on his journey of just little more than 10 years from an intern fresh out of college to safely enabling the biggest transformation of life sciences in decades from San Francisco, Fenton is just focused on the mission.

“I’m not great at introspection. I’m always thinking about the next step and the next thing we need to do.

“10 years ago, I saw this interesting thing happen in healthcare. It was a fuzzy view at the time but now it has come into sharp focus. And as far as we’re concerned. we are serving the most important industry in the coming decade. And that fills me with a lot of pride.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 17 June 2021