Irishman in the Valley: Qualio CEO Robert Fenton talks speed and velocity

Podcast Ep 131: Robert Fenton, the CEO of Irish-born but San Francisco-headquartered life sciences software player Qualio has ambitious plans for the business, and won’t let the current tech slowdown get in his way.

Founded in Dublin by a Cork native, there are strong indications that Qualio could soon join the ranks of unicorns, those businesses valued at more than $1bn. The business is focused on the multi-billion dollar life sciences industry and plays an integral role in ensuring products are designed and delivered safely.

Last year the business 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.

“I felt like that was a pretty easy way for me to slightly de-risk what I am doing and also set our company up for the greatest long-term success. So that felt like a really easy decision for me at the time”

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 in 2020.

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

The company now has more than 500 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.

Following the money


qualioFenton told ThinkBusiness how he started Qualio 10 years ago after previously experience as a pharmacist working with some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms.

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 became apparent that these companies made a promise of quality, which is very similar to the promise a doctor makes, which is first to do no harm, and that the tools and systems and ways that had to actually demonstrate the products that we’re building were safe and effective.

“If you think about the all the products we put in and on our bodies to protect, improve and look after our health, that’s something that we all pretty much take for granted, or at least that we hope we can take that promise for granted.

“We ran Qualio from Ireland for the first four to five years, then moved over here to San Francisco, and it’s become home for me here since.”

He explained that his move to San Francisco was prompted by taking part in an Enterprise Ireland programme called Access Silicon Valley to meet with potential customers and investors.

“And we’re very good at exporting. We’re very good at looking outward in Ireland. And when I came over here, I just really liked the business climate. And I like people. And I felt that I was lucky to be starting a company that can be a global company of consequence that’s going to be around for a long time. So I made the call of well, why not be in what, at the time was and still the best place in the world to do that. I felt like that was a pretty easy way for me to slightly de-risk what I am doing and also set our company up for the greatest long-term success. So that felt like a really easy decision for me at the time.”

Valleys and peaks

Fenton believes his technology is playing a vital role in helping pharma giants to safely develop products that will ultimately be good for patients.

“The simplest way to think about what we do is that first of all it’s a software company, obviously. The focus of everything we build is to make it easier for teams in medical devices, pharma biotech, to bring their products into the marketplace, and then scale them successfully. And we do that in two primary ways. The first way is to take the complicated industry regulations and practices and processes they must follow and create a really, really simple, easy way for companies to follow along with those guidelines and make sure they’re adhering to the regulations that exist.

“And the second thing we do is around proving your products are safe and effective. There’s an enormous amount of information from different parts of the business, different teams, different systems that you use. We provide a single place to aggregate all that information so that you can spot problems early, or you can spot opportunities earlier. And ultimately, when it comes to that device, you might pick up from your pharmacy later on, you know, device number 1m works just like device number one. And that’s easy to say, hard to do. And our software is there to try and solve for that as well. So between both of those things, we help our customers launch and scale products.”

Referring to his decision to move the business to San Francisco, Fenton is clear that it was strategic. “If I didn’t, it definitely would not have been easier. And I can say that with a high degree of confidence because it relates to the size of the capital pools. There are funds in Ireland to invest in Irish companies it is just that the amount of capital available is smaller. So by definition it is more difficult to scale.

“I speak with some of my peers in Ireland and there just doesn’t seem to be the same access, which is oxygen for companies to grow.

“There’s also more capital available [in San Francisco] for technology companies and the world’s highest concentration of technology companies. It’s kind of one of those things that just exists. You can’t really replicate it.”

I point to the current tech slowdown in Silicon Valley that appears to be derailing some companies’ expansion plans and eroding valuations of others.

“The companies I know are still growing, we’re still growing very well. I mean, we’re up almost 700% from the last three years in terms of our growth. We’ve grown our headcount internationally and in Ireland by over 50% over the last year. And we’ve just brought on two really senior people onto the team, including a new CMO. And we’ve launched a ton of a lot of new product. So I just see that the reality is that good companies are still doing the work that they need to succeed.

“And there will be noise around that. And there’ll be some companies who won’t be in a good position.”

Looking forward, Fenton says Qualio will continue to hire and is hellbent on continuing on its mission of ensuring safe product development in the life sciences and pharma sector.

In the cross-hairs is the longstanding problem of the trade-off between speed and quality in product development and manufacture.

“One the things we’re working on is for the first time ever in the industry being able to deploy software at a really high velocity into a regulated space, and automatically generate lots of the information they need to prove to regulators that that’s okay. So again, trying to maximise the velocity, we can move our software into our customers hands, and then teach our customers how they can do the same. We’re spending a lot of time working on new editing and collaboration features. So that our customers are able to, again, spend more time on what really matters and less time just in administration.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.