Professor Helen McCarthy, Queen’s University Belfast
Professor Helen McCarthy is at the heart of the fight back against Covid. She works at Queen’s University, Belfast and is CEO and founder of biotech startup pHion Therapeutics.
Do you think of yourself primarily as an entrepreneur, or primarily as someone who’s in the education sector?
“First and foremost, I’m an entrepreneur. What a lot of people don’t realise is that when you start your academic career, particularly in the field of science, you have a small pot of money to run your research group; and in order to grow a successful research group, with six or seven PhD students and several postdocs, and to be able to secure funding for all your activities, you have to have an entrepreneurial mindset.
“Alongside that, my focus has always been research-led education, rather than education-led research. I work in the field of biotechnology, which can be very fast-paced. Every year when you’re educating students, you have to stay up to date with the latest trends and technologies; and particularly working in the area of gene therapies and messenger RNA vaccines, the research absolutely dictates the education.”
What do you think that we can learn from the founders of BioNTech who were so important in the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine?
“I think the speed with which they were able to operate, pivot, and make this happen was phenomenal. A major lesson that we could take from that is to be flexible and responsive. In any large organisation, the ability to seize an opportunity and make it happen can be held back by red tape. So, it’s essential to have a mindset that is focused on genuinely wanting to make things happen. In our company, we saw a great opportunity because we had a platform technology, actually a technology for the delivery of messenger RNA vaccines. So we went to Innovate UK and secured a significant grant to develop one of the next generation COVID vaccines by adapting our technology to the current situation, but also looking to what will be needed in the future as these viruses are going to be with us for a very long time. More funding has been secured on the back of this work; and I’m very excited about next steps”