Aerogen is an extreme rarity on the Irish industrial landscape, a home-grown globally successful medical technology company. The Galway-based company is the acknowledged world leader in aerosol drug-delivery systems and its success is firmly based on unwavering belief in its products and solutions, according to founder and chief executive John Power.
“Any company in our space has to be born global,” says Power. “The Irish market is just not big enough to sustain the development of medical devices. It’s been a very long journey to the point where we are now.”
That point is sales in the region of €55 million this year in 75 countries around the world with 170 staff based in Galway, the US, Europe and other key markets worldwide.
“The industry is very tightly regulated and the whole design and development process has to be highly structured and very robust from day one,” Power says. “It’s not cheap. It was a bit easier many years ago. Medtronic, the world’s largest medtech company, started out in a garage, a bit like HP. The chances of that happening now are incredibly small because the burden of regulation is so large. You can’t do it totally on the cheap anymore.”
For Aerogen, the story didn’t begin in a garage – it was a room over a butcher’s shop in the Galway suburb of Moycullen in 1997. “I was very fortunate to recognise a clinical need for an aerosol drug-delivery system for ventilated patients,” Power recalls. “I had worked in the industry and seen this gap in the market. My background is in design engineering and I bootstrapped the firms by working on contract for other medtech companies.”
The company merged with a US firm with complementary technology within a few years and following a successful Nasdaq flotation it fell victim to a hostile takeover in 2005. “Without ever wishing to I found myself working for a large US pharmaceutical company,” he notes. “That could have been the end.”
The fact that it wasn’t the end for either Power or Aerogen comes down to that unshakable belief. “From the very beginning I had total belief in the product, that’s what sustained us over the years,” he adds. “It has been used to treat five million patients to date throughout the world. These are people in acute care settings and it has made a huge difference to them. I remortgaged my house twice over the years to pay the company’s bills.”
That continuing confidence led him to organise a leveraged buyout to take his company back in 2007. “We have always been very driven. We knew that our products could make a real difference. We were the first in the world to come up with an aerosol drug-delivery system for ventilated neonates. The major ventilator companies have come to us and said that having evaluated various different technologies they found ours the best and have now started integrating it in their platforms.”
And you’ll know it’s being used because the Aerogen name is on the machine. “It’s a bit like the Intel Inside logo,” Power says with justified pride. “The great thing about that is that it brought us to global markets. It is one thing we really fought hard for. We were determined to protect our brand equity. The equipment had to carry the Aerogen logo. One company made us a great offer early on but said they wouldn’t co-brand. We said no, and they came back to us three months later and agreed to the co-branding.”
Again, that took belief in the product and its value. “It’s a question of belief that the product can make a genuine difference to people’s lives. I have worked in many other industries. I wouldn’t have been able to continue if we had been making paper bags or cardboard boxes.”
Unsurprisingly, he sees Aerogen’s future as one where it continues to make a difference. “We will not remain a medical device company and are moving into pharmaceuticals, with two products at different stages of clinical trials at the moment. One of them is Surfactant, which is similar to a protein found on the coating of the lungs and will help premature babies to breath. The other is Epoprostenol, which will help patients with post-operative pulmonary hypertension. All going well, we hope that these products will be on the market, making a difference to patients around the world by 2020 or 2021.”
Irish Times Special Report, Fri Dec 15 2017, Barry McCall