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Ireland's dynamic life sciences industry attracts investors, both foreign and domestic, and lures its brightest minds back home.
During the last 10 years, Ireland has transformed itself. Once Europe's economic backwater, the country is now one of the strongest European economies. In the late 1980s, Irish per capita income was less than two-thirds that of the United Kingdom. But in the first half of the 1990s, the Irish economy experienced a growth rate of 5% per year, and during the second half, its yearly growth was nearly 10%. Today the per capita income in Ireland is more than 10% greater than that of the UK. Moreover, nine of the world's top 10 pharmaceutical companies have manufacturing operations in Ireland. The Irish government continues to work to make Ireland attractive both to investors and to intellectual talent, and to establish the country as a center for investment, innovation, and inspiration.
Aerial view of Wyeth Biopharma campus in Ireland
Through foreign direct investment since the 1960s, Ireland has grown a globally significant life sciences industry. Today Ireland has over 170 companies employing 35,000 people in the pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, medical device, and diagnostic sectors. Add to this mix a large-scale government investment in research and an increase in entrepreneurial and venture capital activity, and one can easily see why Ireland is developing as a world-class cluster in life sciences, and particularly in biotechnology.
The global consulting firm AT Kearney published its Offshore Location Attractiveness Index in 2004. The index measured the viability of countries around the world as offshore destinations, based on financial structure; people and skills; and business environment. Ireland ranked fourth in the world for people and skills, and third for business environment. The regional picture is even brighter, as Ireland was ranked as the leading location in Europe in both of these categories.
The results of this index will be no surprise to many multinationals. Multi-facility companies such as Abbott Laboratories; Gilead Sciences, Centocor, Allergan, Boston Scientific Corporation; Essilor; Johnson & Johnson; and Wyeth Biopharma chose Ireland as the location from which to service their worldwide markets, with 25 separate Irish manufacturing facilities among these 7 companies alone.
In September 2005, an Industrial Development Agency (IDA) Ireland proposal to establish the National Institute for Bioprocessing, Research and Training at a cost of €72 million was approved. This facility will provide critical research and training facilities for bioprocessing technologies, and will help demonstrate that Ireland is determined to be a leader in this industry. The facility will also provide assurance for overseas companies looking to invest in Ireland that the country will continue to have the skill base to support key biopharmaceutical research and product development.
Major research investment in biotech has taken place in recent years. Funding from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Health Research Board, and Enterprise Ireland means that a research ecosystem is being established with a strong base in the third level sector (universities and technology institutes). Several HEA and SFI projects are particularly noteworthy.
HEA Projects Nearly €300 million has been allocated to bioscience through the HEA's Program for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). Sixteen projects comprising national centers, institutes, networks, and research programs have been established. These include the Biosciences Research Institute, an interdisciplinary research center based at University College Cork; the Conway Institute of BioMolecular and Bio-medical Research at University College Dublin; and the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science at the National University of Ireland in Galway (NUI Galway).
SFI Projects SFI has created a number of world-class research Centers of Science, Engineering, and Technology (CSETs). CSETs support research partnerships that link scientists and engineers with their industrial counterparts. One such CSET is the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Center (APC), which is receiving €16.5 million over five years to research drug treatments and pharmaceutical products. The APC's commercial partners include global giant Procter & Gamble, as well as Alimentary Health Limited, a company established to commercialize the output from the University College Cork. SFI has also made a €15 million CSET award to NUI Galway to establish the Regenerative Medicine Institute. Regenerative medicine is an emerging discipline that involves developing gene and cell therapy to promote tissue repair and regeneration. As a result of regenerative medicine's use of minimally invasive techniques, it promises to partially replace current conventional medicine.
Enterprise Ireland's biotechnology strategy aims to maximize the creation and growth of commercially focused biotechnology companies in Ireland. On campus, Enterprise Ireland, the state agency responsible for the development of indigenous Irish industry, is active in funding applied research, which has a commercial output through its Commercialization Fund. Over 100 life sciences technologies are currently in the pipeline, with a number of these forming the basis for spinoff companies while others are being licensed to existing firms.
Enterprise Ireland commercialization specialists work with university technology transfer offices to help identify, protect, and exploit the technologies being developed. Campus-based incubation space for life sciences start-up companies has doubled in the last two years. Moreover, many facilities funded by Enterprise Ireland are fully occupied by client companies. Enterprise Ireland has provided almost €4 million to establish six facilities that are available to a range of clients, including university spinoffs, company spinoffs, entrepreneurs from overseas, and foreign companies wishing to relocate in Ireland. The incubators are a combination of laboratory and business space, with access to financial, legal, and marketing advice.
Enterprise Ireland, in conjunction with the Irish BioIndustry Association, is bringing industry and academia together to develop specific research and development projects that will help address the needs of industry in the short term. The initiative concentrates on two areas of particular interest to companies: in-line testing capability for bioprocessing, and miniaturization of diagnostics.
Enterprise Ireland has also been instrumental in promoting private sector seed and venture capital development in Ireland.
Networks have been very important for the life sciences sector, both within Ireland and abroad. BioConnect Ireland, BioLink USA-Ireland, and TechLink UK-Ireland are three organizations established in recent years that cooperate to keep individuals in Ireland, the US, and the UK in touch and informed about developments and opportunities within the sector.
Many of the best and brightest graduates left Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s when the level of scientific funding was low and jobs in science were hard to find. The situation has turned around since the late 1990s, when major funding became available for science and R&D for the first time, in the shape of PRTLI, set up in 1998, and SFI, established in 2000. Enterprise Ireland also significantly increased support for applied research and life sciences companies with high potential for growth. The positive upshot of these developments is that some of Ireland's top minds, who had nearly given up on the possibility of returning home, started to view things very differently. Given the transformation of the research climate, a return home became attractive.
Tim O'Brien, professor of medicine at NUI Galway, reports, "I'm a Corkman, and I returned to Ireland to take up a post with SFI. I had studied medicine in University College Cork, and for four years after I graduated I worked in Cork University Hospital. In 1988 I went to the US. There I worked for 13 years, mostly at the Mayo Clinic, where I had a post as a clinical investigator. I worked in the area of diabetes to enhance the care of those patients. About four years ago I started to look with glee at what was happening in Ireland. NUI Galway was setting up a number of clinical research posts, and the Program for Research in Third Level Institutions and Science Foundation Ireland had been established to fund individual researchers."
He continues, "I was appointed as professor of medicine at NUI Galway in 2001. The Ireland of 2001 was very different than the Ireland of 1988. There has been massive capital put into the hospital in Galway, there was a strategic research plan in place, and the individual environment for researchers had improved."
O'Brien goes on to note that when he returned to Ireland in 2001, there was a cluster of medical device companies in Galway that was the biggest in Europe. Moreover, there was an industrial partner, Medtronic, that he felt he could call at any time.
For CSET funding, O'Brien and his colleagues felt they were well-positioned, because they had a regular medical institute partner, as well as university and industry partners.
"That was the key to our success," he points out. "We also managed to attract another Corkman, Frank Barry, who had worked with stem cell technology for 14 years in the US, to return home."
For potential biotech start-up companies in Ireland, much of the infrastructure is already in place. This infrastructure includes both facilities and talented scientists. The start-up company in Ireland is, therefore, launching its business within an existing and well-developed system.
One such business is Opsona Therapeutics Limited. Founded in March 2004, it is a campus company based at Trinity College, Dublin. Opsona Therapeutics is a drug development organization that focuses on the regulation of the human immune system and is identifying and developing new drugs and vaccines to treat and prevent autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
Opsona's academic founders are among Ireland's leading immunologists, and are considered world leaders in their areas of expertise. One of them is Luke O'Neill, a professor and department head in biochemistry at Trinity College. He is also an SFI Fellow, whose research group focuses on the signaling processes involved in innate immunity.
According to O'Neill, "There are hundreds of researchers in the universities that were not there a few years ago. We need to capture that knowledge and put it into companies. There is an enormous amount of intellectual property coming out of Ireland's universities. I would continue to urge investors to contribute to venture capital funds. Funding start-ups is not easy, but it can be based on very good science."
John Pethica graduated from the University of Cambridge in the UK with a Ph.D. in physics. He was a staff scientist at Brown, Boveri & Co, Ltd, in Switzerland from 1980 to 1982 and held Fellowships at Cambridge from 1983 to 1987. He subsequently became professor of materials science at the University of Oxford.
Pethica moved to Ireland in 2001 and became a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator at Trinity College, Dublin in December 2001. The recipient of numerous awards, he conducts research into nanomechanics and the manipulation and control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale, with application to novel devices and biological structures. His nano-science research has possible applications in biotechnology, medicine, and pharmaceuticals as well as in information technology.
Explaining how and why he chose to relocate in Ireland he says, "People have asked me why I left Oxford [University]. Well, Ireland was a live opportunity, and there was a sense that things were happening there. Ireland was not an option 10 years ago. Twenty-five years ago Ireland was a little backwater, but now it has a new Nanocenter at Trinity College, Dublin, involving TCD, University College Dublin, and University College Cork. Ireland is now drawing people, and a critical mass of people is important, because of the need to have people to bounce ideas off. We also need benefactors to make Ireland the land of scholars."
Wyeth is the largest pharmaceutical firm in Ireland. The company has been manufacturing in Ireland since 1974, and it now has operations at four locations: Limerick, Kildare, Sligo, and Dublin. With 3,000 employees, Wyeth is also the largest employer in pharmaceuticals in Ireland.
Reg Shaw is managing director at the Wyeth BioPharma Campus in Dublin.
He recalls, "Against stiff competition, early in 2000 we decided to locate a plant at Grange Castle (west Dublin). It is a $1.8-billion investment. This is a biopharmaceutical plant, making product. We will make our rheumatoid arthritis product in Dublin, and a vaccine for children under the age of five. Then we have a new innovative antibiotic that can be used to treat very serious hospital infections."
Shaw continues, "The quality of the people funded under SFI was very important to us. Of our workforce, 6% are non-national workers, and 15 countries are represented at Wyeth Ireland. Another 6% are returning nationals who have experience mainly in the biopharm business."
He concludes, "The government's commitment to R&D was a critical consideration for us when we decided to locate at Grange Castle. The talent pool available was even more critical, since 60% of our workforce are graduates."
In 2005 the Economist Intelligence Unit, a leading research and advisory firm with more than 40 offices worldwide, devised a Quality of Life Index for 111 countries. The result was that Ireland tops the list. To rank the countries, 9 criteria were used. The main factor was income (or "material well-being"), and the other 8 aspects of daily life considered important were health, freedom, unemployment, family life, climate, political stability and security, gender equality, and family and community life. The factors were analyzed, based on a score for each indicator, and the 111 countries were scored and ranked.
Ireland was ranked number one because the county successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new (the fourth-highest GDP per head in the world in 2005, low unemployment, and political liberties) with the preservation of elements of the old (such as stable family and community life).
A year earlier, Ireland was ranked number one on the Harvard Business Online Global Creative-Class Index. This index acknowledged Ireland as one of four countries where the "creative class" constitutes a third of the workforce. The index measures the creative edge a country possesses, and the potential strength of its economy, based on a single factor: the country's openness to new ideas. This is felt to be the characteristic that enables a nation to attract the brightest minds from around the world and to harness their creative energies. Harvard Business Online observed that Ireland is spending substantial sums on R&D and is firmly supporting its universities in an effort to attract the world's best minds. The Global Creative-Class Index, then, is a quantitative indicator of the migration of creative capital, with the understanding that wherever creativity goes, economic growth is sure to follow. Ireland was recognized as having a developing business community with education and research funded at high levels, and as being a nation that taps into the creative potential of growing numbers of workers at all levels.
Ireland today, with a population of four million people, is a small member state within the European Union (EU). However, this small size has never inhibited Ireland from seeking to be a fully participating member of the global community. As a nation, Ireland has always had visions of success, allied to a pragmatic and structured approach to achieving its ambitions. This is evident in the country's ongoing emphasis on making itself attractive to investors and to intellectual talent, as Ireland continues to establish itself as a country where investment, innovation, and inspiration are of paramount importance.
Note: Details of organizations mentioned in this article can be found at www.biotechnologyireland.com.
Declan McGee is the communications manager for Enterprise Ireland's Biotechnology Directorate. He is also the Editor of Irish Biotech News and www.biotechnologyireland.com.