Follow the Leader, Philip Noone, Aalto Bio Reagents

Philip-Noone
In the latest in our series of interviews with business leaders about their journey so far and plans for future success, we talk to Philip Noone, CEO of innovative Irish biotechnology firm Aalto Bio Reagents.

Philip Noone, CEO of Aalto Bio Reagents, has a background in marketing and a passion for science, and spent several years with leading US-based company Quest Diagnostics. He took over at Aalto in 2014, setting it on a path of innovation. In his free time he is an off-road motorcycling enthusiast who has competed twice – and finished once – in the world’s toughest motorsport event, the Dakar Rally.

 


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“Aalto Bio Reagents is the leading company for the production of antibodies and antigens for emerging diseases. Most of the major players in the diagnostics test market are using our components for their diagnostic tests. It’s the key part – like the engine in a racing car – and their tests don’t work without our components. In a way the reagent is the test.”

What was the key motivation and raison d’être behind your business?

“When I bought the company in 2014, it was successfully making traditional products. Since then we’ve gone after the new market of emerging pathogens. There are seven major diseases we’re looking at, including Zika, dengue fever and West Nile virus. What we do is a bit different to others in that we’re targeting the vector – the mosquito that transmits the disease. So far we have developed 32 products for these seven disease categories, moving at a pace the competition can’t keep up with.”

Looking back now at the early stages of your business, would you do anything differently in terms of leadership?

“There isn’t a great deal I would change. I wrote the strategic plan in 2014 to move into emerging pathogens, looking several years forward. Our first new product was for chikungunya virus [a debilitating mosquito-borne disease], and then the Zika virus outbreak happened practically overnight. It’s hard to say that we were lucky because we had identified these diseases, but we certainly had the right product at the right time. We couldn’t make it fast enough, so I suppose one thing I’d do differently would be to scale-up production more quickly.”

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What keeps you engaged and motivated to drive the business on?

“I’ve always been deeply involved in the science, but during my time at Quest the business hat came on. This is something you learn working for a US-based company – everybody is a salesman there. Now I wear two hats, but always look at the science first. What really drives me on is finding ways to earlier diagnose these infections, so that people can be treated.”

What does achievement and success look like for Aalto Bio Reagents?

“Achievement for us is being the go-to manufacturer for emerging pathogen diagnostics. I would love to see more companies coming to market with our components, using our diagnostic engine in new tests. We want to double this business in the next four to five years.”

 

“What we do is a bit different to others in that we’re targeting the vector – the mosquito that transmits the disease. So far we have developed 32 products for these seven disease categories, moving at a pace the competition can’t keep up with.”

 

Philip Noone, CEO, Aalto Bio Reagents

 

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?

“The thing that resonates most with me is the old adage ‘To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail’. This is true in all walks of life. If I were to turn up at a motocross event with a badly prepared bike, I wouldn’t expect to finish, let alone win. It isn’t any different in business. Preparation is the key pillar of success.”

What has been your proudest achievement with Aalto Bio Reagents to date?

“I’m proud to have built quite a young and motivated team, where everybody works hard and we punch above our weight as an SME. Our greatest achievement has to be getting the Zika product out in 2015. We were first to market and with the best product.”

Your approach as leader is best described in which three words?

“Innovative. Open-minded. Execution.”

How are you preparing and planning for Brexit in your business?

“We’re an Irish company, with unique products, and 94% of our business is export. We have a couple of UK clients but this is only about 10% of our sales. Brexit is not going to affect us all that much. We expect one or two barriers in terms of paperwork, but we will continue to sell directly to our international customers. I think UK companies will face much more of a challenge.”

What’s next for Aalto Bio Reagents?

“Our market will certainly continue to expand. We will continue to look at the vector, the Aedes mosquito, which is beginning to appear in southern Europe. These vectors are moving by air travel – you could say that air travel is becoming a vector in its own right. Now the disease is travelling, the western world is taking more notice.”

How does Aalto Bio Reagents go about finding new markets? Why do you use this particular approach?

“We’re an SME in Ireland and the diseases we target are thousands of miles away. We attend and sponsor conferences – in fact I’ve just returned from an international Zika conference in Estonia. There are around 400 diagnostic test manufacturers in Europe, and a similar number in the US, but there are at least 400 and perhaps 800 in China, so it’s clear where the growth will be.”

Parting shot: what advice would you give anyone looking east for sales and growth?

“I wouldn’t be honest if I said it wasn’t a challenge – the culture is different, and lead times can be longer. We’ve gone with the partnership approach; Enterprise Ireland has offices in key locations, can set up connections and has excellent experience. If you’ve something that’s innovative, the bureaucracy can quickly be put aside. My advice is to have something very innovative and be prepared to execute. You just need one innovative product to start.”

 

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