When Sharon Cunningham joined Ireland-based EirGen Pharma in 2011, she was in awe of the company’s co-founders, who had set up the pharmaceutical company after their MBA.
Fast-forward several years, Sharon has an MBA of her own, from UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, and has set up her own pharmaceutical firm, Shorla Pharma, which develops new oncology (cancer) treatments for women and children.
She’s garnered praise from all directions, winning Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur in 2019, and the Association of MBAs (AMBA) Best Entrepreneurial Venture Award in 2020.
“My MBA gave me the confidence, skills, and knowledge I needed to embark on my own entrepreneurial journey.”
Getting into the pharmaceutical industry
With a bachelor’s degree in finance, Sharon’s early career was in accountancy, having trained and qualified as a chartered accountant at PwC.
She was lured away by a job opening at a new pharmaceutical company, EirGen, which had been started by two MBA graduates. They had actually formulated the business plan during a group project on their MBA, and after graduation, had decided to give the venture a go.
“I wasn't too keen to leave my job, given that we were in a recession at the time, but I agreed to go to the interview. When I met the two co-founders of that company, I was really inspired,” Sharon says.
She joined the company as an accountant, but quickly worked her way up to being the head of finance. She was heavily involved in gathering investment for the company, as well as helping the company’s takeover by US company OPKO Health.
Why did Sharon choose an MBA?
It soon became clear to Sharon that, in order to take the next steps in her career, she would need to upgrade certain areas of her skill set. An MBA seemed like the perfect place to do this.
First and foremost, she wanted to build her confidence.
“Although the company I was working in was 50:50 male and female, I was the only female on the management team. In addition, I was by far the youngest.”
Her MBA at UCD Smurfit School was a huge credit to her confidence, particularly when it came to build her soft skills. Negotiation, as well as a stronger understanding of business knowledge and frameworks, grew her confidence and presence in a business setting.
Having seen the success of a post-MBA entrepreneurial venture, Sharon was also driven by the possibility of one day starting her own company. Her MBA played a big part in showing her what it took to build and run a business successfully.
The network from UCD Smurfit School was critical in broadening her perspectives about how to run a business.
“I had many classmates with diverse backgrounds, very energetic, insightful, wide-ranging specialties and sectors. That brought ideas, fresh thinking, perspectives from all over the world and industries.”
Setting up Shorla Pharma
One of Sharon’s main takeaways from the MBA at UCD Smurfit School was this idea about breaking out of your comfort zone. “You have no growth inside your comfort zone. If I continued to stay there, I’d never grow and do what I wanted to do.”
Sharon and business partner Orlaith Ryan, who she had worked with at EirGen, very quickly realised that they had similar ambitions for setting up their own business.
“We both had an appetite for risk. We knew we wanted to set up a company, and knew we wanted it to be pharmaceutical,” Sharon recalls.
They identified a significant opportunity in the oncology sector, with regards to treatments for women and children.
“These areas are often overlooked in pharma, because often they are too small for larger pharma companies to focus on.”
Shorla—a combination of their two names—was launched in 2018, just a few years after they graduated from their respective master's programs. The company’s focus is on indications where treatments are limited, in shortage, or inadequate for the target population.
Lessons learned as an entrepreneur
The experience of running her own business has taught Sharon several important lessons. Firstly, a certain level of detachment from decision making.
“You need to have an intimate relationship with the problem you are trying to solve, but also be emotionally detached from the solution so that you can embrace change,” she reveals. This has helped the company navigate some tricky decision making, as well as innovating where relevant.
Having a finger on the pulse, and being able to change, has been important for many business owners in the COVID-19 pandemic. Shorla’s manufacturing has been able to continue, but upcoming clinical trials have been threatened by the lockdown.
In spite of this, business at Shorla is booming. They recently raised $8.3 million in their series A funding round, and are launching the company's first product in the US next year. Off the back of its success, the company could see huge growth and popularity. This all feeds back into Sharon’s original desire to do good as an entrepreneur.
“I knew I wanted to do something bigger, have a wider impact, and create positive change. In order to do that, I needed the confidence, the skills, and the network, and the MBA gave me all of those things.”