Inside the Irish company planning to produce millions of Covid vaccines

More than a decade after the creation of the company he co-founded, Dr Mark Barrett can still recount the deal that made it all possible.

“We were invited over to a big pharmaceutical company in the US,” he recalls. “Someone very senior said ‘We’ve heard about what you’re doing’ and they invited us over.

“We had no money, we had no team, no real technology to do anything about this, and I remember on the flight over formulating slides about how we were going to add value and help him with his problems.”

When he and his co-founder, Prof Brian Glennon, arrived in the US, they learned that the company in question was under pressure to bring a medicine to market which would help treat schizophrenia. Barrett and Glennon pitched their credentials and, with the company showing interest, they asked for some money upfront to fund such a project. “To this day, [that] was the most important money I’ve got from a company.”

In essence, that sum – a relatively meagre €25,000 – validated the ideas both Barrett and Glennon had about how to improve the pharmaceutical research and manufacturing processes and led to the establishment in March 2011 of APC.

In the 10 years since, Barrett as chief executive and Glennon as chief technology officer have built their pharmaceutical research company into one that now boasts revenues of €26 million, with well laid plans to expand into the manufacture of vaccines as well as cell and gene therapies.

Just last week, the company announced a €25 million investment plan. Of that, €17 million will go into the creation of a new business – VLE Therapeutics – which will operate as a separate concern to manufacture vaccines among other things. The remainder of the money will be used to bulk up their existing operation by hiring additional staff and opening new lab space.

At present, the company is developing about 30 different medicines from its Cherrywood base. “Everything from oncology to respiratory-based vaccines to Covid vaccines to neurology,” explains Barrett.

“There are medicines being developed here that are not being developed [anywhere] else in the world in any company, even the biggest pharma companies.”

Scaling up

To explain APC’s work in simple terms, a pharmaceutical company will come up with a molecule that may cure or treat an ailment. APC then focuses on recreating the recipe of that molecule, which must be the same every time, and then designs a process to manufacture that treatment at scale.

One needn’t look further than the debacle with Covid-19 vaccine deliveries in Europe earlier this year to understand how some pharmaceutical companies find these processes very challenging.

Of course, many of those companies are the experts in identifying a drug to treat something and the subsequent marketing of that drug. In effect, APC takes care of the bits in between. How? “The depth we have in our category is world renowned. The fact the teams can focus purely on the recipe to make the molecule – that’s really unique,” says Barrett.

From their office in south Dublin, the company currently employs about 140 staff, 90 per cent of whom have PhDs. There are plans to add an additional 120 jobs, almost half of which will be filled in the coming four months.

Becca Dunne, an APC process development engineer III, is pictured at work. Photograph: Andres Poveda

The reason behind this rapid expansion is the desire to strike while the iron is hot in respect of the move into vaccine manufacturing. As it stands, the group is already developing a Covid-19 vaccine with Australian biotechnology company Vaxine. It has also been involved in the development of other vaccines, but Barrett says those relationships are “commercially sensitive”.

In any event, their expansion means that, by the end of this year, the group will have what they say is “the ability to make millions [of Covid vaccine doses] a year”. When their current investment programme concludes in 2023, and they add a 7,432sq m (80,000sq ft) manufacturing facility to their portfolio, Barrett says the company’s production capacity will increase to “tens of millions” of doses.

On an island with a dearth of vaccine-manufacturing capability, the State clearly doesn’t want to be caught short on this front again. APC’s expansion is clearly of strategic importance, a fact that explains backing it has received in the form of grant aid from Enterprise Ireland.

Barrett notes that the pandemic pushed the company to decide to engage in its largest-ever expansion. Additionally, they opted “to spin out some of our intellectual property and customers. We decided we don’t want to distract APC’s focus from [research] so that’s where we came up with VLE Therapeutics,” he says.

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