CPhI Festival of Pharma

Women in pharma face unique obstacles: Shorla Pharma

By Jenni Spinner

- Last updated on GMT

(gorodenkoff/iStock via Getty Images Plus)
(gorodenkoff/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

Related tags CPhI Worldwide Pharmaceutical companies Business

A cofounder of the Irish pharmaceutical firm will join others in sharing her perspective as a female pharmaceutical leader at this year’s CPhI event.

While women have had an increased presence in nearly every corner of the pharmaceutical industry in recent years, it remains a male-dominated field. During the Women in Leadership Forum, taking place October 13 4 to 6 pm during this year’s CPhI Festival of Pharma, women representing a diverse range of organizations will discuss their experiences and highlight the qualities they believe can help further industry success.

Sharon Cunningham (SC), cofounder of Shorla Pharma and scheduled forum participant, told Outsourcing-Pharma (OSP) about her experiences as a female leader in the pharma industry and offered advice for colleagues on how to make their way in a field that remains male dominated.

OSP: Could you give us an introduction to yourself and Shorla Pharma?

SC: Having led the finance team for seven years at an Irish pharma company, EirGen Pharma, I co-founded Shorla Pharma in 2018 with a colleague, Orlaith Ryan. ‘Shorla’ is a combination of our first names. I’m a chartered accountant by profession with a degree in Finance and an MBA.  

Shorla Pharma is an Irish-headquartered speciality pharma company with an advanced pipeline of innovative oncology drugs focussing on rare, orphan, women’s and paediatric cancers. The company concentrates on indications where existing treatments are limited, in shortage or inadequate for the target population.

Our growing portfolio will bring accessible, affordable and life-saving treatments to patients, delivering a major contribution to patient care and providing a significant clinical impact.

OSP: Some might consider it a brave decision to launch such a company, particularly being a female entrepreneur. How did you find those early discussions when you first tried to launch the company?

SC: It was a big decision to leave our jobs and embark on our own entrepreneurial journey but being part of a start-up pharma company previously and witnessing that company grow and succeed gave us all the inspiration and confidence we needed. We never saw being female entrepreneurs as an obstacle; in fact, the opposite on the basis that we tend to stand out from the crowd by being in the minority.

We spent considerable time planning and developing our business plan with a clear product strategy and a well-defined value proposition. We backed this up with robust financial projections based on realistic assumptions and a go-to-market strategy.

We surrounded ourselves with clinicians, scientists, key opinion leaders and commercial strategists; people with the necessary skills and experience and an industry network to ensure our ideas got the required funding and are developed and commercialised. The fact that we were female entrepreneurs didn’t matter to our investors; they recognised the competitive advantage, were impressed by the value we had created on limited resources and saw our passion and ambition as founders.

OSP: Many pharma firms are starting to see the benefit of rebalancing their executive teams. From your experience, what were the main benefits that women brought to those executive teams? How did that gender rebalance benefit the team?

Sharon Cunningham, cofounder, Shorla Pharma

SC: I’m an equalist; I’m hugely in favor of balancing the scales in terms of gender diversity. It’s widely recognized that in business, gender diversity lends itself to greater innovation and commercial success for both the company and the economy as a whole.

In my previous role, I was the only woman on the senior leadership team for a number of years. Over time, more women were promoted and I observed first-hand the positive change in the dynamic that occurred as a result; ultimately, it led to a more female-friendly corporate culture with maternity benefits and flexible working conditions etc. which removed the obstacles facing women and allowed them to advance to higher positions.

Women bring different perspectives; we tend to be naturally strong in emotional intelligence and having women leaders lends itself to a more emphatic environment which is a key competitive advantage.

OSP: You and Orlaith seem to have a complementary skillset, with backgrounds in finance and science, respectively. What advice would you give to women looking to become innovators in pharma?

SC: I’d say:

  1. Identify a clear focus. Find your passion and match that with your experience. My co-founder and I have five little boys between us and we are passionate about improving paediatric and women’s health; we married that passion with our complementary skillsets and our expertise areas to develop our business plan.
    It’s important for a start-up to align its focus with what the market needs. Women and children affected by rare cancers are often small patient populations that are often overlooked. This is a clear unmet need – and an opportunity for us to address underserved markets, apply regulatory strategies and incentives and obtain market exclusivity. Focus on a product or treatment that will bring both clinical and commercial value.
  2. Embrace agility. You need to develop an intimate relationship with the problem you are trying to solve but be emotionally detached from the solution. A start-up doesn’t have the luxury of time. If something isn’t working, make a decision and move on.
  3. Find the right partners. Seek the appropriate mentoring, advice and financial support (explore both dilutive and non-dilutive options). Surround yourself with people who have a proven track record and an industry network to ensure your idea gets funded, developed and commercialised. Our investment syndicate brings not just financial support but also invaluable expertise and experience to Shorla.

OSP: What advice would you have for young female graduates in particular entering/looking to enter the industry?

SC: I would tell them

  1. Mentoring. Identify an informal and confidential mentor you trust and admire early in your career and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it- you’ll be surprised at how willing successful people are to help you.
  2. Branding. Be very conscious of branding – both the company or product brand and your own personal brand. People form relationships with and do business with people and not companies. Identify what makes you unique and stand out from the crowd and embrace it – every single day.
  3. Network. Never underestimate the power of your network; take time to grow it and engage with it consistently- your connections will open endless doors for you and strong relationships are key to future opportunities.

OSP: You were awarded Ireland’s best young entrepreneur last year – how does it feel to be recognised so quickly?

SC: I was truly humbled and honoured to accept the title last year on behalf of Orlaith and I and Shorla Pharma. It was a highly competitive process; there were over 1,600 applicants.

Winning the competition was very impactful for us; it was further validation of our business plan and provided national and international exposure, enhancing our credibility as a globally focussed pharma company.

OSP: Is there a long-term strategy in place where you are looking to become serial entrepreneurs, like some of the west coast scientists have become?

SC: Orlaith and I are very aspirational and we have lots of ideas. Our priority now is to continue to grow our product pipeline and expand our technical and commercial operations both in Ireland and the US so that we meet our milestones and realise our vision.

There is no greater motivator than knowing that once we succeed it will enhance the lives of cancer patients and their families around the world.

OSP: What do you look for in your team – is there something in particular that you look for in addition to qualifications?

SC: Beyond credentials, I look for bright, highly motivated and enthusiastic individuals who can demonstrate a desire to succeed. Organizational fit is hugely important to me and all the smarts in the world won’t make up for a personality that doesn’t fit the existing dynamic.

Above all, I look for common sense; someone who is well-balanced and possesses a ‘can-do’ attitude.

OSP: Finally, do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised just how vital trade shows like CPhI Festival of Pharma are, with regard to networking, maintaining customer relations, business development etc?

SC: Absolutely! While I’ve grown to accept video conferencing as a useful networking tool, there is simply no substitute for the experience of face to face communications. Trust and camaraderie build great teams, create loyalty, and form the basis of moving business forward, especially as a start-up.

The current environment emphasises how vital CPhI and other global trade shows and conferences are in enabling connections and collaborations that cannot be replaced in the same way virtually.


The CPhI Festival of Pharma takes place digitally October 5 to 16. For more information about the program or to register, go to https://www.cphi.com/festival-of-pharma/en/home.html.

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