Dr Helen McBreen is a partner at Atlantic Bridge, a global growth equity technology firm that announced the launch of the University Bridge Fund II in May. This fund is focused on scaling and commercialising research from Ireland’s third-level institutions, including UCD, into the next generation of deep tech companies with global potential.
Dr McBreen graduated from UCD with a first-class BE in Electronic and Electrical Engineering.
1. What was your UCD experience like – the social scene, classes, lecturers?
My experience at UCD was fantastic, with the perfect combination of socialising and hard work, in that order.
2. What is your fondest memory from your time at UCD?
I made lifelong friends and my fondest memories are of spending time with this very successful group of people who are now located across the world.
3. How did you end up in your current area of work?
After graduating from UCD, I studied for my PhD at the University of Edinburgh which led to roles in engineering and from there I moved into commercial positions. In 2009, following jobs abroad and in Ireland, I moved into a role to work more closely with venture-backed startups and joined Atlantic Bridge in 2015.
4. What have been the most challenging aspects of your career?
Today, the most challenging aspect of my career is trying to balance knowledge of the fast pace of innovation and exponential rise of cutting-edge technologies with the ability to think forward and predict which investment decisions will deliver returns and result in the creation of high growth companies. This challenge also brings opportunities.
5. How has your industry changed in the last 5 years?
Visionary entrepreneurs seeking to grow companies will raise equity financing as vital fuel to grow. Over the past several years seed funding has grown and emerged as its own class, with major institutional investors backing Fund Managers with a globally recognised track record, such as Atlantic Bridge.
6. Was it difficult pursuing a career in STEM – did you encounter any overt bias?
Once you are pursuing a career in a field that you enjoy and are passionate about then difficulties are minimised. However, biases are a reality in almost all fields, but there are step changes happening. Tackling the challenges relating to diversity, equality and inclusion are critical to ensure the future of work. In fact, our latest investment is in a young company that has built a platform to help organisations overcome diversity and inclusion challenges.
7. What do you think your career priorities will be in 10 years’ time?
In venture capital, you are only as good as the companies you invest in and the founders you work with to support. Over the next ten years, my ambition is to find the best entrepreneurs, back the most cutting-edge innovations, and build global companies of significant importance from Ireland.
8. How has your career impacted the way in which you see the world?
My career in venture capital would not be successful without putting energy into building lasting relationships. For that reason, I see the world through the connections we can make in it. Helping people find the right people to work with and to help them build teams has made a huge impact on my career.
9. Who are the most interesting or helpful mentors or advisors that you have had?
Fortunately, I have a wide and varied group of mentors and advisors. They are important connections I nurtured over the years. I believe mentors are essential to encourage and support professional and personal development, and I would encourage people to put energy into this. Equally, I also am a mentor to people at earlier stages of their careers, so it’s important to pay it forward too.
10. Tell us about the work of Atlantic Bridge? Is the University Bridge Fund II a major milestone for third-level research?
Atlantic Bridge is one of Europe’s top-performing growth technology funds and also leads the University Bridge Fund II, a fund focused on scaling and commercialising extensively validated research from Ireland’s third-level institutions into the next generation of deep tech companies with global potential.
The fund is a unique partnership between Atlantic Bridge and Irish universities to accelerate the commercialisation of world-class science and to globally scale the companies formed. Its goal is to maximise the benefit from research that takes place in the higher education sector and has made a significant impact in Ireland to date, investing in over 35 deep tech companies that have raised over €300 million in co-investment to date.
The University Bridge Fund ranks fourth within the world’s Top 5 collaborative University Funds and is part of a growing trend of successful university funds located at international research hubs including Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard.
11. You have previously been quoted as saying that investing in a female-led business is about pragmatism and not some altruistic quest; do you still encounter antiquated views of female leadership in your industry?
The way to catalyse change in equity investing and to support female entrepreneurship is to level the playing field. We still have a lot of work to do to create equal opportunities for women to scale and grow their businesses, but we must empower more women to start their high-tech businesses, starting with encouraging more women into STEM.
12. What are the key aspects of success when working internationally?
Understanding cultural diversity is critical to successful international business relationships.
13. How has an Engineering degree helped you in your career to date?
As an engineer and problem solver, I have a bias to overcoming hurdles and getting things done. This can take a fair degree of resilience, determination, and persuasiveness, all qualities that were embedded in me during my time at UCD.
14. Which areas of innovation and technology are you most excited by, and how has this helped with your current position?
Interestingly, the topic of my PhD research was in the area of speech recognition, speech synthesis and conversational AI. It’s amazing to now think that these technologies, so nascent 20 years ago, are pervasive in our daily lives. When seeking new investment opportunities we have to take a long-term view of the world and have an eye toward the technologies that will impact our world for the better in 10-20 years.
Areas of particular interest include healthcare innovation, cashless societies, semiconductors which will be everywhere and in everything, quantum computing, wearables, carbon capture innovations – all technologies that can work for us to change our world for the better.
15. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Continually assess your priorities. They are always changing.
16. Describe yourself in three words.
Personable, inquisitive, determined.
For more information about Atlantic Bridge or to find out more about Dr McBreen’s work check out the following links.