Making It Work: Start-up’s laboratory pods fit the bill for Covid testing sites

Iso Pod founder Brendan Dolan hadn’t expected the HSE to be his first client for his ready-made cleanrooms, but then the pandemic happened

26th February, 2021
Making It Work: Start-up’s laboratory pods fit the bill for Covid testing sites
Brendan Dolan, founder of Iso Pod, in one of the company’s ready-made cleanroom laboratories

When Brendan Dolan set up Iso Pod 18 months ago, he expected demand for his ready-made cleanroom labs to come mainly from biotech companies in the fast-growing gene and cell therapy field.

As it turned out, Dolan’s first client was the HSE, which commissioned the Sligo start-up to build modular labs for Covid-19 testing sites in Mullingar and two other locations in the midlands.

Dolan’s Iso Pods suited the project because they are constructed entirely off-site and can be installed and fully up and running within just a few weeks.

The pods are the first standalone cleanrooms that can be set up entirely in outdoor locations such as next to a pharmaceutical plant, outside a university lab block or on hospital grounds, according to Dolan.

The 45-year-old, who has worked for two decades in cleanroom validation and quality management roles, has come up with a special “box within a box” design that meets the strict operating standards of the highly regulated industries to which he is selling.

“The Iso Pod is a clean space within a box and everything you need is inside the box — HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) air locks, electrics, lighting and fire systems,” Dolan said.

“It’s fully operational when it arrives and you can set it up anywhere, next to an existing building or on a greenfield site. That’s a first for the industry.”

The pods come in three configurations, priced from €150,000 to €350,000, each with between 40 and 50 square metres of floor space and fitted out in line with the client’s quality requirements.

“From a manufacturing point of view, the pods are qualified facilities. All the air is being recirculated every time it comes into and leaves the space,” Dolan said.

“You have temperature and humidity control and we’ve designed them to be very adaptable.

“Once you have one on the ground, you can park another one right beside it and grow the floorspace that way.

“It’s ideal for fast-growing companies because you can start with a small facility and then expand really quickly.”

In addition to the HSE, Iso Pod has also picked up fast-build lab contracts with MeiraGTx, a clinical-stage gene therapy company in Shannon, and Farmlab, an animal health diagnostic company in Roscommon.

The company is also attracting interest from potential clients outside Ireland. Dolan said he had been contacted by a biotech company in Belgium and universities in Britain looking for outdoor lab pods.

He is keen, however, to make sure that he doesn’t take on more than he can handle before the start-up is ready to ramp up production.

“Starting your own business, I think you really have to pace yourself and avoid taking on too much too soon,” Dolan said.

“My big focus over the next year will be on getting the right team in place to allow us to scale when we’re ready.

“I can realistically take orders for about ten more pods this year, I’d say, but I won’t be signing any really big contracts until I have the technical people I need on board across electrical, HVAC and design.”

As it stands, Iso Pod employs five people at an office in Finisklin Business Park outside Sligo.

The company has raised funding of €450,000 to date from private investors and Enterprise Ireland. Iso Pod is a high potential start-up client of the state agency.

“I worked on the design and concept of the pods for about two years before I went looking for any support or funding,” Dolan said.

“It was tough at the beginning. Like any business, getting Enterprise Ireland funding on board was a big help.

“After that, we were able to get the private funding on board as well, so it’s been really crucial to getting the company off the ground.”

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