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Interview with Leonora O’Brien, CEO and Founder of Pharmapod

December 2, 2013 - Inspiring Interviews
Interview with Leonora O’Brien, CEO and Founder of Pharmapod
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“Resilience is a common denominator among all entrepreneurs – you really do need to have unwavering self-belief in yourself and the direction you are going in.”

Leonora is an award winning pharmacist and the founder and CEO of Pharmapod, a ‘pioneering’ software company promoting the safety of patients. Leonora has 16 years’ experience in pharmacy practice, policy development and regulatory affairs at a national & EU level. Leonora’s past roles include working for the Pharmacy Regulator in Ireland and across 7 European countries as European Manager for an international pharmacy group, implementing pan-European professional standards & Anti-Counterfeit programmes. She has also held the position of Chief Pharmacist for the largest pharmacy chain in Ireland. Leonora is also the Laureate for Europe in the 2013 Global Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards.

Pharmapod has developed an innovative cloud-based software that drives standards of patient safety across the pharmacy profession worldwide. Available to all pharmacists by monthly subscription, it runs on all platforms and is designed to cross borders, ‘the first international platform of its kind,’ says Leonora, ‘to pool information from country to country and monitor the trends and causes behind medication errors and adverse effects. It has garnered recognition and awards in the global business community, including the Cartier Award, the Professional Excellence Award at the Helix Health Pharmacists Awards and the top award for Tech Entrepreneurs at the European Digital Agenda Assembly 2013 organised by the EU Council and the NDRC, Dublin. 

Photos courtesy of Leonora O’Brien.

Visit the Pharma Pod website and follow her on Twitter @pharmapod, @leonoraobrien

 

Who is your role model as an entrepreneur?

Actually I have two, my uncle and my father who are both entrepreneurs. I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment, thinking that anything is achievable, that you should think creatively and visualise something new – don’t just follow the crowd. My uncle founded the fashion chain Sasha and my father built a company in the education space. Both men were very well travelled internationally and carved their own path and destiny and were not afraid to take risks. They both have a very deep understanding of cultural differences and how understanding different cultures and markets can truly enrich your perspective on life. Focussing on one market was never going to be enough for me. You’ve got to get out there in the world and learn from other people. I always knew I’d need to work internationally. My father was a very important influence on me and brought me up believing I could do anything I put my mind to – that has equipped me with a self belief that is vital in the everyday life of an entrepreneur.

I never felt that being a woman was a barrier to being an entrepreneur until we started to go for funding. There are absolutely 0 females on the teams of any of the VCs that we have come across, so that is not a level playing field and this is very obvious in the statistics of low levels of investment into female-led companies. Unfortunately we’re still at the stage where we have more to prove.

 

What is your greatest achievement to date?

I try to achieve every day and am particularly proud of 3 key achievements:

  1. Personally winning National Awards over the years for Pharmacy Practice in Ireland. It is a wonderful thing to be recognised in this way.
  2. Our customers have also recently nominated us for the ‘Professional Excellence Award’ at the Helix Health Pharmacists Awards this year. I’m very proud of this because it is proof that our customers believe we are bringing them value and driving the profession forward. To know that you’re valued and that customers have felt strongly enough about our work to go through a lengthy nomination process, is a great feeling.
  3. Winning the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award was very important because it’s a global award and the standard is so high. It’s a long process to go through, where you are surveyed for a longer period on how you interact in certain situations. It has brought a lot of momentum to the company and it has given us a network of amazing people to draw inspiration from. It’s a real addition to your life in general and has been great for the Pharmapod team and also for my own personal journey.

 

What has been your biggest challenge as a Women Entrepreneur?

Growing up, I had no idea that we were any different to men. I grew up in a household where my father was always proud of his 3 daughters and instilled in us the belief that we could do anything we wanted to do.

I never felt that being a woman was a barrier to being an entrepreneur until we started to go for funding. There are absolutely 0 females on the teams of any of the VCs that we have come across, so that is not a level playing field and this is very obvious in the statistics of low levels of investment into female-led companies. But the investment process, by it’s very nature, is a judgemental one and the guys can have a lot of challenges as well, eg some people may look too young which can work against them and they also have to overcompensate. I think the current system doesn’t work in women’s favour, when it comes to funding. Unfortunately we’re still at the stage where we have more to prove. I personally know some male-led companies who have gotten funding at concept stage without having an actual paying customer on board, and I personally know of many female-led companies with a lot of traction and still investors are slow to invest. Only 7% of companies funded annually by Enterprise Ireland are women-led. They are doing a great job at trying to address that now, but it is still an abysmal figure and, for the most part, the statistics are similar internationally.

As an entrepreneur, my biggest challenge has been to survive without funding. Software is  specifically challenging in this regard because you do need a minimum investment before your bring your product to market. You want good people on board and good people are expensive. It’s a key challenge for most startups – how do you build a great team on 0 money? You just have to be more creative in the early stages as to how you are going to make the company work until you do get funding.

 

What in your opinion, is the key to your company’s success?

Perseverance! (she lets out a long sigh!). It’s so important to push yourself forward, even when there doesn’t seem to be even a chance of a light at the end of the tunnel, you have to visualise one being there.  Resilience is a common denominator among all entrepreneurs – you really do need to have unwavering self-belief in yourself and the direction you are going in. You need to value other people’s experience, listen to their advice and surround yourself with good people so that you don’t feel isolated. I am always learning from other people and enjoy the solidarity we get from other teams, founders and advisors.

 

If you could have done one thing differently, what would that be?

Nothing that I can think of! You could say to me that I could have gone to look for finance earlier, but we had to focus on the customer piece first, to gain traction to become investor-ready. I would follow my gut instinct about people’s abilities and what they can bring to the table. During a due diligence process, an investor might want to see older, experienced personnel but when you’re working day in day out on the project, you become the expert in who is delivering the most for your business and business is all about deliverables at the end of the day. If someone is adding a lot of value then that’s who you want on your team, regardless of how they might look on paper.

Entrepreneurs are just people who have an idea and have the conviction to explore it further and dedicate themselves to it… Being an entrepreneur means putting yourself entirely into a project, and a lot of the time, initially at least, putting the project before yourself.

 

What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?

Pharma Pod Team

Entrepreneurs are just people who have an idea and have the conviction to explore it further and dedicate themselves to it. The common denominator is certainly not being money-driven! If it’s financial gain and security you are interested in, then you might be better off getting a high level job in a big organisation.

Being an entrepreneur means putting yourself entirely into a project, and a lot of the time, initially at least, putting the project before yourself.  You have to be prepared for the possibility of not being paid at all for a certain period of time and taking a hit on some of your comforts – it’s certainly not for everybody!

However, if you have an idea that you are truly interested in, I would say get out there as early as possible, talk to as many customers you can; start charging at the beta testing phase.

When you are an entrepreneur, you should do something you are passionate about, because you do think about it 24/7, Christmas day included! Another great thing to do is travel – I find even a brief change of scenery brings a fresh perspective.

 

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would say it is a visionary leadership style, which is good for an early stage company. I lead people by demonstrating the passion I have for the business and for instilling an understanding for the importance of our goal as a company – which is ultimately to improve the safety of patients.

Surrounding myself with naturally positive and passionate people is half the battle. I really spend a lot of time selecting the people I want to work with. I tend to interview candidates for 3 hours – by then you really do know whether they are a good fit for your company’s values, what drives them and how they will fit in with the rest of the team. I only became aware recently that the official word for this process is ‘Top Grading’ and it is actually a best practice recruitment mechanism being used now by some top agencies. The way I see it, is that it’s better to spend 3 hours upfront choosing the right person, than spending 3 months training the wrong person. I focus on getting the right team, instilling my vision and making my positivity contagious! Visionary style is right for our business currently but my leadership style will change with each growth phase of the business.  

Advice to my younger self: Go for it! Everything will work out the way you want it to and will be fine.  Don’t waste time being anxious about anything – just believe, and go ahead.

 

What advice would you give your younger self?

Go for it! Everything will work out the way you want it to and will be fine.  Don’t waste time being anxious about anything – just believe, and go ahead – I would reassure myself that everything would be fine.

 

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?

In 2014 we are rolling out the UK and already have our channel partners identified there. In the next 5 years, we will have rolled out to the rest of Europe as well as Canada and we will have many countries on board from the developing world. We are meeting the World Bank next May and who knows where that will take us. We really would like to bring Pharmapod to developing countries, to help address the problems with counterfeit medicines and save lives and money for the people there.

 

3 key word to describe yourself:

  1. driven
  2. capable
  3. positive

 

“You can never get enough advice, so make sure you talk to as many people as possible, then make up your own mind. If nothing else, it should confirm if you are already on the right path”.

 

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Anne Ravanona is the Founder and CEO of Global Invest Her – Catalysts for getting Women Entrepreneurs Funded faster and building Gender-Inclusive Workplaces. A TEDx Speaker, Anne regularly speaks at global conferences on the topics of Funding for Women Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and leadership. A Huffington Post contributor, Astia Advisor, she is passionate about funding and inspiring women entrepreneurs. Follow her on Twitter @anneravanona @GlobalInvestHer
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