Testing service helps lab tech firm to combat the challenge of Covid

After an initial ‘panic’, Evelyn O’Toole pivoted her firm CLS to provide coronavirus testing for medtech clients

Evelyn O’Toole, founder and chief executive of CLS: when lockdown hit, she sat at the kitchen table trying to craft out a plan until the small hours of the night. Picture: Andrew Downes, Xposure

Evelyn O’Toole has seen a lot in the 27 years since she founded Complete Laboratory Solutions (CLS), a Galway-based company that provides lab testing services to businesses across the food, environmental and medical industries. But the 53-year-old Clifden native said Covid-19 was the most difficult challenge she has ever encountered.

“I don’t panic easily,” O’Toole said, recalling the day the country was plunged into lockdown. “But I did panic that night.

“When you’ve got 240 people at your company, and you’re responsible for their salaries at the end of the month, you feel a responsibility for their security.

“I went from having a glass of wine after my dinner, being really chilled out on a Friday evening, to sitting at the kitchen table trying to craft out a plan until the small hours of the night.”

For CLS, which has served more than 600 customers over the last three decades, O’Toole’s strategy included a move into running Covid-19 test services on a private basis for customers.

The company started out in 1994 with a sampling and testing service for firms in the food and environmental sectors, before opening a sister lab dedicated to pharmaceutical and medtech testing. But last year, as the virus spread, many of CLS’s clients began looking for a testing service to keep their staff safe and their operations going.

“Companies needed to know if their staff were safe to come to work, and the only way to do that was by testing,” O’Toole said. “And in the very early days, it was really difficult to get tests, so we thought we needed more control for ourselves and for private industry.

“So we realised we could help our more than 100 medtech clients with that, and we’ve protected people in the workplace by screening out those who shouldn’t be in because they were sick.”

Commercially, Covid testing has helped CLS in recent months, but the firm has suffered a blow to other parts of its business.

“It’s a mix, to be honest, and the blend has changed in what makes up our revenues,” O’Toole said.

Overall, though, CLS is in a strong place despite the pandemic. O’Toole, who founded the firm solo aged just 26, said her experience in business helped her through.

“We’ve developed a lot of expertise over the last 27 years,” she said. “We started in the Gaeltacht in Ros Muc, and it was just me driving around, collecting samples, issuing reports, coaching clients. And now we’ve got 240 scientists working with CLS.”

Last week, O’Toole spoke at the launch of Enterprise Ireland’s Levels Project, an initiative to help businesses improve gender balance at leadership levels.

“Gender equality has become very topical over the last few years, but despite that, the actual results are quite poor,” O’Toole said. “That’s the disappointing part. So it needs to be more about action, and embraced with more of a purpose to produce results.”

CLS itself, however, has never had a problem attracting women, she noted. “I think we were always visually available for other young, professional women, so we always got a high number of female applications to work with us. At the moment, we’re 61 per cent female and 39 per cent male.”