Andrea Doolan of Atlantia Food Clinical Trials

6th June 2018

Posted In: The Interview

Imagine not just finding your work both fascinating and challenging – but knowing that what you do every day will help others cope with everything from depression to weight loss and digestive problems.

Áilín Quinlan

That’s the sheer satisfaction of day-to-day working life for scientist Andrea Doolan, founder member and CEO of the successful firm Atlantia, an Irish-owned and operated food clinical trials company based in Cork – although it spun out of what is now known as APC Microbiome Ireland at UCC just a few years ago, it’s already earned a strong reputation with companies across the food sector on both the domestic and international stages.“ At the moment we’re testing everything from the effects of fruit extracts on knee pain, to the impact of probiotics on weight-loss and cognitive functioning,” explains Andrea, who holds a BSc in Microbiology and a HDip in Applied Science from NUI Galway and whose passion for research excellence – and for the company’s influence on the future of food development worldwide – is clear.

The journey from lab-counter to shop-shelf is quite a long one, Andrea acknowledges, but the reward from the work she and her fellow scientists carry out is clear – the company hopes, for example,  to see probiotics with proven claims for improving positive mental and digestive health on sale within the next year or two.

A seasoned business leader and biotech professional with expertise in medical research, molecular biology, biotechnology, cell culture, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and life sciences, the outgoing mother-of-two from the North Cork town of Mallow, has worked in the clinical trials area since leaving Cork for the US in the gloomy, and deeply recessionary, mid-nineties.

In Boston she worked as Clinical Trials Coordinator for the Harvard AIDS Clinical Trials Group at Massachusetts General Hospital before returning to Ireland some five years later, and taking up the position as Human Studies Manager with what was then known as the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, at UCC. “I got a very good introduction to clinical trials,” she recalls. “The fact that I worked in Harvard opened a lot of doors for me when I returned to Ireland in 2000,” observes Andrea, who decided to co-found Atlantia with a number of colleagues after spotting a definite niche for the management of clinical food trials: “We noticed that food companies were regularly approaching APC to run food clinical trials which was not its primary remit,” she recalls now.

She and her fellow scientists  were quick to grasp the opportunity to meet that growing need,  and the rest is history – Andrea launched Atlantia in 2013 in conjunction with UCC colleagues,  Professor Ted Dinan, Professor Fergus Shanahan and Barry Skillington. These days the still-fledgling Cork firm conducts clinical research across a wide range of foods and food extracts, as well as measuring intake and impact on food study participants. Although Atlantia is as yet only five years old, it’s already well on its way to make real its vision to become the world leader in the advancement of nutritional treatment of key global health challenges through the use of natural food derivatives.

To date the company has worked in conjunction with more than half of the top ten global food companies- and across a range of trials conducted across areas as diverse as sports performance, cardiovascular, cognitive function, muscle loss in the elderly and oral health. One of the firm’s most interesting projects is the effect  of probiotics on the gut: “We found that modifying the microbiota (the population of bacteria in the gut) can have a positive physiological benefit such as improving mood and stress levels, digestive health and even potentially sporting performance,” explains Doolan. “Theoretically we believe that improving your microbiome can improve your sporting performance because a poorly functioning digestive system can impact on your physical prowess. You really are what you eat – we all hear it, but it is true and the research proves it.”

Food companies are constantly looking for innovative products and they come to Atlantia to test how much benefit certain functional ingredients might have for the consumer, she explains: “At the moment, for example, we’re testing everything form the effects of fruit extracts on knee pain and probiotics on weight loss and cognitive functioning,” she explains. “It’s very interesting work – what we do every day is fascinating,” she observes.

Atlantia’s services are in big demand both here and abroad, and not surprisingly, the firm, which currently employs 25 people at its Cork headquarters, ranging from clinical professors, to doctors and scientists, as well as a full-scale sales and operational support team has grown considerably in the five years since it was established.

There’s further expansion on the horizon. On the home front Atlantia expects to increase its workforce by some 20% and expand its facilities in Cork over the next few years. The founders also plan to launch a US subsidiary over the next 24 to 36 months. However, central to Atlantia’s work, Andrea points out, is its mammoth database of research participants.  This army of  some 14,000 ordinary people, scattered across Cork city and County, is one of the company’s most valuable assets, she says: “Without them we simply could not carry out the work.”