What happened the Creeslough man who left school early?

THE founder of an Irish pharmaceutical services company, which has begun trials on a new Covid-19 nasal spray vaccine is Donegal man Cathal Friel.
Mr Friel (57) from Creeslough was a finalist in the International category as part of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020.
He left school after his Junior Cert to work in the family business before going back to education. He completed a City and Guilds Cert in Basic Computer Programming in Letterkenny RTC (LYIT) at night classes and got an MBA from the University of Ulster in 1990.
He spent the following five years lecturing part-time in International Marketing and Business Planning at the University of Ulster, while running his own new technology services business.
He would then spend a year back-packing his way around the globe before coming back to Dublin  where he was part of the team that successfully established Merrion Stockbrokers in 2001. Six years later he founded Raglan Capital.
Today, he is the Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of Open Orphan plc and employs 365 people.
“It’s certainly been a bit of a journey. The moral of my story is that while you don’t need a Leaving Cert to become a university lecturer you do need a third level qualification to get on in the new world.

New Leaving Cert

“The new Leaving Cert is a degree while the new degree is a masters, preferably in a completely different discipline,” he said.
Living in Blackrock with his wife Pamela Iyre and their three children Narayan (13), Hari (11) and Devi (8) he likes nothing better than getting back to Portnablagh for two weeks every summer.
“At any given point in the year I’m counting down the days until I’m back home. We take a house in Portnablagh, my sister takes one next door and we spend two weeks together every year.”

‘Friel’s of Creeslough’

Cathal’s  late father John was a successful businessman, running the Ford garage ‘Friel’s of Creeslough’ while together with his wife Tessie he developed an Adventure Sports Centre and Creeslough Holiday Cottages.
“I suppose it was the first real property boom – the late seventies – and not long after they expanded the business the interest rates jumped from six or seven per-cent up to 15 or 16 per cent. Dad had borrowed the money before he took sick. Six older brothers and sisters had gone off the college and here I was, a sixteen-year-old, meeting the bank manager with my mum. I quit school in a bid to help keep the show on the road,” he recalled.
“Looking back, it was probably the best life lesson I could have got – trying to manage a ton of debt. People talk abut the crash of 2008 and ‘09 but many forget there was also one thirty years earlier,” he added.
After discovering the internet during his ‘gap-year’ he moved to Dublin and got involved in the software industry before setting up a Venture Capital Company two years later called Powerscourt Investment. He then helped to establish Merrion Stockbrokers in Dublin.
“It was my job to buy and sell companies and we specialised in buying and selling a lot of family-owned local newspapers, radio stations and software companies.
“I remember selling the Sligo Champion for €24 million one year and the new owners offering to sell it back to me for just €2 million a year later. It was a crazy time,” he said.
“I would also have sold Highland Radio, Today FM and FM 104 on behalf of Scottish Radio Holdings,” he added.


Eland Technologies

Mr Friel was involved in the sale of Eland Technologies to SITA.
“I remember that their COO was Michael Cunningham from Kilcar and he persuaded Richard Stokes, Senior VP at SITA, to bring the company to Donegal. He drove Richard up to Donegal himself to see the county and if it wasn’t for Michael they wouldn’t be in Letterkenny today,” he said.
Cathal Friel founded Raglan Capital in 2007 before setting up Fastnet Oil & Gas plc in 2011.
He also co-founded Amryt Pharma plc in 2015 along with Joe Wiley, which has been listed on the London Stock Exchange since 2016 and which listed on Nasdaq in July 2020. Prior to Amryt, he founded Fastnet Oil & Gas plc in 2011 which he IPO’d on the London stock exchange.
“I’ve managed to retain Raglan as an advisory business to assist people looking to make investments,” he said.
“Amryt was a high risk, high reward business whereas Open Orphan operates as a pharmaceutical services company with a focus on virology, vaccine studies, and orphan drugs in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Singapore.
In December 2019 Open Orphan merged with UK-based Hvivo – a clinical trial business – in a £30 million takeover.
“They were the world leader in vaccine testing but the minute we acquired the company the share price fell. Then along comes the pandemic, the share price goes up five times, and the rest is history,” he said.
“We hired 120 people in the last six months and we now employ 365,” he added.
Recently Open Orphan started trials on the next generation of Covid-19 vaccines, a nasal spray from US company, Codagenix.
“Potentially, the vaccine we are testing will give you seven years protection against Covid. It doesn’t need needles and it doesn’t need to be deep frozen. It’s still early days yet and there’s another year’s work to do but it’s an exciting project,” he said.
In October, Open Orphan signed a contract with the British Government to carry out what are known as human challenge trials for Covid-19.
Human challenge trials involve volunteers being purposely infected with the relevant virus. To date, this has only been done with viruses other than coronavirus such as influenza.
“It is quite controversial because instead of making people sick with influenza we are planning on making people sick with Covid-19.
“However, by doing so we can save a pharma company €150 million by spending €4 million to €5 million with us. That is the magic of challenge studies,” he explained.
The company is still awaiting regulatory approval before it can carry out these kind of trials on Covid-19 in Britain.
“At the moment we’re all going to be taking Covid jabs this summer and we’ll be back again for more of the same next year. Hopefully, if we can get this approved and across the line it will mean going to your GP once every seven years or so for the vaccine,” he said.

Work habits

The pandemic has changed people’s work habits and Mr Friel believes that that can only be beneficial for rural counties like Donegal.
“It has shown that you don’t have to spend all your time in Dublin and, added to Brexit, it can only help Donegal’s economy.
“Brexit is one of the greatest things that has happened this country. London had become a European hub with everyone gravitating towards there but in more recent times thousands of jobs have quietly come to Dublin and Ireland.
“One simple example is Tik Tok, a Chinese company which would have had close connections with Britain while another, WuXi, bought GMI (Geonomics Medicine Ireland) for €540m and has since set up two vaccine manufacturing plants in Dundalk as they still need access to Europe.”Mr Friel has also noticed a lot of financial institutions setting up bases in Dublin.
“Many of these jobs will soon start to move around the country.
“Northern Ireland will do better than the south because it’s still in the UK and the EU while Donegal will also get its share of jobs,” the Creeslough man added.

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