Meet The Entrepreneur

In this series of interviews, we meet some of the entrepreneurs heading up Seroba’s portfolio companies. In this issue we chat to Sharon Cunningham and Orlaith Ryan of Shorla Pharma.

Q: Welcome to ‘Meet the Entrepreneur’.  Can you start by telling us where and how you both met?

A: Sharon
Orlaith and I worked together for 7 years at EirGen Pharma before embarking on our own entrepreneurial journey. We were fortunate to join that company in the relatively early stages and we gained a lot of experience and inspiration as part of the leadership team there.

Shorla Pharma Image

Q: Together you have created a very innovative new company. For you personally, what was the inspiration that started your journey?

A: Sharon
Having witnessed EirGen Pharma grow and succeed and having been fortunate to work closely with the co-founders on the various transactions and associated due diligence processes along the way, it motivated me to do something meaningful and purposeful; to have a wider impact and create positive change and I’m a calculated risk taker by nature.

A: Orlaith
Being part of a previous start up pharmaceutical company that was extremely successful gave me both inspiration and confidence. In addition, knowing we would have autonomy to create impactful products and actually make a difference to patient lives was a personal goal of mine.

Q. Shorla is an unusual company name. What does it mean?

A: Orlaith
Shorla is a combination of “Sh” from Sharon and “orla” from Orlaith. The products we create are unique and we wanted the name of the company to be different as well. So, rather than choosing an existing word we created our own! We really believe in the importance of the brand and integrity of the company and putting parts of our names in the company name demonstrates just how invested we are in the company.

Q: What sort of illnesses will the pharmaceuticals that you are developing treat?

A: Orlaith
Our products will treat cancer where existing treatments are limited, in shortage or inadequate for the target population. We focus particularly on women’s and paediatric cancers.

Q: Why do you think Seroba and your other investors chose to support Shorla?

A: Sharon
We spent a huge amount of time planning and developing our business plan with a clear product strategy and well-defined value proposition. We backed this up with robust financial projections based on realistic assumptions and a go-to-market strategy. We surrounded ourselves with people with the necessary skills and experience and an industry network to ensure our ideas got the required funding and would be developed and commercialized. I think Seroba and the other investors recognised the competitive advantage, were impressed with the value created on limited resources to date and saw our passion and ambition as founders.

Q: How have you found the partnership with Seroba so far?

A: Sharon
Seroba along with other participants in the investment syndicate bring invaluable experience to Shorla and have a proven track record in the pharmaceutical sector. From our first meeting with Seroba they were our lead investors of choice and we have really enjoyed working with them thus far; it’s more than just financial support, it’s also invaluable guidance and advice. We’re confident that we have the right partners to support us in executing our vision.

Q: What have been the highlights for the Company in the past year?

A: Orlaith
From a technical perspective we have recently completed the manufacture of our first product to support the associated license application to the US Health Authority, the FDA by the end of the year. The closure earlier this year of our Series A funding round was another significant milestone. We also have started to grow our team with a view to creating more positions in both Ireland and US as the product developments progress.

Q: How have the challenges of Covid-19 affected SHORLA and what specific changes have you had to make to overcome those challenges?

A: Sharon
We’ve been extremely fortunate in that it has been business as usual for the most part given that pharma is considered an essential service in every country where we have activities. However, we are continuously scenario planning for potential delays with receipt of raw material and around recruitment for a clinical trial that’s due to start later this year. We are hopeful that while the FDA is allocating considerable resource to Covid-19 related challenges, our products will be assessed in line with original timelines nonetheless.

Q: What are your immediate priorities going forward?

A: Orlaith
Submit a market approval application to the FDA for our first product, scale up our second two products to support further market applications and commence clinical testing for our third product.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your longer-term plans and goals – over the next couple of years?

A: Sharon
We will continue to grow our product pipeline and expand our technical and commercial operations both in Ireland and the US. Our vision is to create value by delivering more effective products in indications where existing treatments are sub-optimal for the target cancer patients, ultimately enhancing patient outcomes.

Q: How do you see the Pharma industry developing in the future?

A: Orlaith
With the advancement of personalised medicine “treating the patient” as opposed to “treating the disease” will become the norm. Pharma will have to respond to this, incorporating effective companion diagnostics and biomarkers to optimise clinical benefit. This targeted approach will create a competitive edge for pharma companies.

Q: Do you think the Coronavirus pandemic has made a difference to how the industry will operate in the future?

A: Sharon
The pandemic is a reminder of the vital role the life sciences industry plays, but it is facing tough challenges in terms of how companies adapt the way they conduct their business activities. Companies that embrace innovation and accelerate their digital transformation journeys, particularly around sales and marketing, will be more successful in the ‘new normal’.

Q: From a business perspective, what issues would keep you up at night?

A: Sharon
It’s generally excitement about a potential opportunity and trying to figure out how we can realise it rather than worry that keeps me awake at night. Cash runway and the timing and structure of the next transaction tends to be at the forefront of my mind consistently.

A: Orlaith
Switching off can be a challenge at times. I think this is due to the energy required and adrenaline rush from being part of such an exciting company. There is always something to think about, but that comes with the territory of being an entrepreneur.

Q. As a VC, Seroba knows that successful entrepreneurs need to have total emersion in their task of creating and building their products and company. But we also know that entrepreneurs tend to have a quirky, different side to their character or nature that sets them apart. Would you agree with that?

A: Sharon
Definitely! Personally, while I’m organised by nature I don’t like rules and routine; I’m most creative, productive and content when I don’t have to conform to society’s perceptions of what’s normal - which is probably why the Covid-19 restrictions are suiting me in some ways. I find the time offers more freedom and flexibility allowing extreme focus on the task in hand.

A: Orlaith
Yes I agree, however, in contrast to Sharon I tend to be a rule abider in most situations! I am hyper focussed and over analyse situations. There certainly is not a one size fits all for Entrepreneurs but they do say what makes you weird also makes you wonderful!

Q. Do you have any hobbies or interests that help you find that healthy work/life balance that we all need?

A: Sharon
I see it more as a work/life integration and even more so now during Covid-19. I run most days and I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors in the countryside this summer with my young family cycling on our local Waterford Greenway and enjoying frequent dips in the sea along the beautiful Copper Coast where we live.

A: Orlaith
Reading, shopping, and virtual gym classes are my personal pastimes, however, similar to Sharon, spending time with family is my number one priority when I am not working. Fitting in the hobbies are a bonus when time permits!

Q: if you could give one piece of advice to new or aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?

A: Sharon
Ultimately a company is valued in financial terms so paying extremely close attention to the numbers is essential. The creation of agile business systems and processes early on enables oversight of the financial performance and position of the company in real time which in turn facilitates informed decision making.

A: Orlaith
Embrace agility, the current environment emphasises just how important this is, in particular for start-ups who do not have the luxury of time. If something is not working in a particular way, make a decision and change - there is always a solution!

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