Inside Ireland’s Biotech and Medtech Hub

Inside Ireland’s Biotech and Medtech Hub

Highlights

  • Nine out of 10 of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies have set up in Ireland
  • Knowledge hubs and specialist programmes help promote sector growth and innovation
  • Collaboration and a clustering effect provide opportunities for technology breakthroughs

Ireland plays a key role in driving economic growth with its biotech and medtech industries.

The life sciences account for a whopping 21% of the Irish economy, and a remarkable nine out of 10 of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies have plants in the country. Ireland is also the largest net exporter of pharma goods in the EU, producing tens of billions in sector exports each year. How did such a modest-sized country become such a major medtech player?

In the early 1980s, government foreign investment arm the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) secured a contract from the global firm Schering-Plough to deliver biotechnology-derived pharmaceutical products. This win was fundamental to Ireland’s exponential rise as a key player in medical and healthcare innovation, with particular strengths in pharmaceutical manufacturing and late-stage clinical research.

Medtech sectors have attracted €10bn of new investment in the past decade and are forecast to create 5,000 new jobs over the next few years, according to IDA figures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, biotech and medtech clusters have developed across key cities to support the continuing growth of Ireland’s life sciences industries.

A solid plan for sector growth

Biotech – the harnessing of cellular and biomolecular processes to improve health, and medtech – innovations and technologies used to save and improve people’s lives – have been recognised as key economic drivers for Ireland. As a result, there are a range of strategies designed to help businesses take advantage and encourage further growth.

The Irish Medtech Association Strategy 2020, for example, sets out four focus areas: identifying and influencing trade and skills development; utilising clusters that assist companies in developing new technologies and bringing them to market; facilitating co-operation between interrelated sectors in the economy; and ensuring the right conditions to nurture entrepreneurship.

“The level of support for start-ups makes it easy to pursue a new idea here, and there is something about the Irish way of working that is very open, friendly and collaborative,” says Aviva Cohen, CEO of Neuro Hero, a Dublin-based medtech company that develops speech and language therapy apps for people living with chronic illness.

Alongside the major global players already established in Ireland’s capital, universities have assisted healthcare firms by establishing knowledge hubs and specialist programmes designed to promote biotech and medtech innovation. For example, the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) Launchpad and the Innovation Academy in Dublin have been instrumental in promoting sector growth.

“Irish universities have or are connected to great start-up accelerators. Practically every city in Ireland has one major accelerator programme focused on medtech,” says Shourjya Sanyal, CEO of Think Biosolution, a provider of camera-based healthcare and fitness tools.

 

“The level of support for start-ups makes it easy to pursue a new idea here, and there is something about the Irish way of working that is very open, friendly and collaborative”
 
 Aviva Cohen, CEO, Neuro Hero
 

As companies work more closely with these accelerator programmes, they create ecosystems where technology breakthroughs can happen. Thanks to the clustering effect, which creates opportunities to collaborate and share research, the rapid rate of healthcare developments is boosting regional economies and enabling innovative players to expand across the country into other cities.

Galway in particular has been making a name for itself on the creation of innovative medical devices, especially those designed to treat coronary diseases. The city is home to one third of Ireland’s 25,000 medical device employees and contains the second-highest concentration of medtech companies in the world.

A collaborative ecosystem for life sciences

Given Ireland’s modest size, a lot of potential exists for collaboration between the companies operating in science and tech, while strong business networks produce a sense of connectedness and community among players large and small.

“People are often vying for interrelated goals within a small ecosystem, and as a result, you go and showcase your product and another company showcases theirs, and suddenly you realise you can build a partnership,” says Sanyal.

The level of support and opportunity for both emerging and expanding companies, combined with the ability for industry and academia to collaborate seamlessly, makes Ireland one of the most attractive places in the world for life sciences companies to be based.

“What’s going on in Ireland right now is that a lot of the smaller companies are ‘growing up’ in the same place. That creates a lot of potential for the future, especially in the next five or 10 years as the technology picks up pace,” Sanyal adds.

Robert Dunne is CEO of GlycoSeLect, an Irish company that operates globally and specialises in biomolecular analysis and development work. He believes that education and expertise are the main factors that draw biotech and medtech companies to Ireland.

“Our universities provide excellent training, which means good graduates, and there’s a tremendous pool of talent and experience thanks to the investments of major multinational firms from the 1960s onwards,” he explains. “You’ll see quite a few Irish people in senior positions at those big companies, having worked their way up the ranks over the years.”

Global leadership in regulatory compliance

Because the life sciences sector is complex and heavily regulated, many companies must apply for special permissions to perform human testing. Ticking the right boxes is often challenging and almost always takes time, with some waiting years for permission to be granted by regulators.

“In contrast to software, testing anything on humans entails a long list of expensive things you need to do before you’re allowed to move forward,” says Dr Jeremy Skillington, vice president of medtech company Inflazome, which recently raised funding of €15m for its work on inflammation and superbugs. “It’s high risk, but also high reward.”

Ireland has an excellent international reputation when it comes to regulatory compliance, which makes it an attractive place for pharmaceutical, biotech and medtech companies to operate. Ireland’s certification agencies operate in accordance with European and global standards such as those set out by the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

“The world is getting older and patients are getting sicker, so there’ll always be a need for new innovations,” Skillington says. “It’s a small but very educated and experienced community here in Ireland, and I think we’d all love to see it grow even further.”

 

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