The BioInnovate Ireland programme is looking to train the next generation of innovators in medical technology. So what’s it all about, and how is it progressing so far?
These days I keep hearing a word being mentioned during interviews about medical technology in Ireland. "Do you know about it?" people will ask, no matter what subject we have been talking about.
That word is BioInnovate, and it’s the first-of-its-kind programme in Ireland: ‘fellows’ spend time in hospitals and observe clinical practices, they identify innovations and whittle down their ideas into projects that have commercial and clinical potential, learning and networking as they go.
The fellowship, now into its second year, was inspired by the Biodesign programme at Stanford University. Ian Quinn, who founded Creganna (now Creganna-Tactx Medical), saw Biodesign on a visit to California and was impressed by it. And when he came back to Ireland he had conversations that catalysed a similar initiative in Ireland.
‘Timing was right’
The timing was right to look at the opportunity, according to Dr Mark Bruzzi from NUI Galway, who is today programme director of BioInnovate Ireland.
"The med-tech sector in Ireland wanted to have more engagement with clinicians and the universities for innovation of new devices, and there was also the need for more people capable of innovating to generate new start-ups, hence generating a culture of entrepreneurship," he says.
But there was homework to be done, so Bruzzi spent four months at Stanford learning how Biodesign works. And by August 2011, the BioInnovate Ireland Fellowship Programme had hit the ground running.
The 10-month fellowship, which is separate from Stanford and tailored to suit the Irish sector, is supported by Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Medical Devices Association, university partners NUI Galway, University of Limerick, Dublin City University and University College Cork, plus companies including Medtronic, Creganna-Tactx Medical, Lake Region Medical, Boston Scientific and SteriPack.
It works by recruiting teams of fellows with various backgrounds – medicine, engineering and business among them. They spend several weeks learning about a particular disease area, then they go into hospitals in Ireland to observe and to identify potential innovations to address clinical needs.
Bruzzi describes how the 2011/12 teams based in Dublin and Galway focused on cardiovascular disease and initially came up with 400 ideas from their observations. Next they winnowed the total down to 20 (10 per team) before getting together to brainstorm solutions. "The process is about identifying the right problem to solve," he says.
Eventually two projects came to the fore – a vascular support device for grafting and technology to improve vascular embolism, or closing off blood vessels – and they have now been funded by Enterprise Ireland to be developed further.
Not all BioInnovate fellows continue to work on the projects after the fellowship, but Bruzzi is confident that the alumni who pursue other opportunities will go on to have impact in the area, too.
"I think this is an important programme for training the next generation of leaders in the medical device sector," he says.
Coming up with solutions
Brian O’Neill, head of life sciences at Enterprise Ireland and a BioInnovate Ireland board member, describes the initiative as an “exciting addition" to the med-tech sector in the country.
"This is the end of it that Ireland needs to nurture," he says. "The medical-device industry at its heart is about engineering solutions to medical problems. And BioInnovate brings multidisciplinary teams together so they can identify unmet needs and develop a plan. So you get fantastic, rounded, innovative people coming out of it who can be absorbed by our companies, or else you are going to get new technologies or companies in their own right."
Prof Jack Linehan, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and biomedical engineering at Northwestern University, notes that the BioInnovate programme is building on the resources and potential already present in Ireland.
"BioInnovate is effectively tapping into the rich experience extant in the manufacturing medical-device space in Ireland to foster new educational and training initiatives in experiential learning in Irish universities," he says.
And what does Quinn, who chairs BioInnovate Ireland’s advisory board, think about the programme now that it has a full year done and another one started?
"It has gone very well," he says. "It got off the ground and put through eight fellows and we’ve seen two start-ups funded. If we do this for 10 years there will be 80 people out there who will have a real effect on this society and this economy, and I think that is what makes it worthwhile."
2011-2012 BioInnovate fellows with Ian Quinn (front), BioInnovate advisory board chairman. Back row, from left: Marie Travers, Wayne Allen, Colin Forde, Waqar Aziz, James McGarry, Kevin Moore, Liam Mullins and Vicky McGrath
The BioInnovate experience
"It really is learning by doing." That’s how Wayne Allen describes his experience of going through the 10-month BioInnovate Ireland fellowship programme, where participants observe clinical practice, identify innovations and bring solutions forward.
"You get to watch the end-user and observe what problems they have," he says. "But you can also strike up a great working relationship with the clinicians because you are there to watch and talk to them, and hopefully help them."
Allen and another BioInnovate fellow, Colin Forde, are now working on an innovation that came from observing procedures where clinicians close off blood vessels with tiny metallic coils. The BioInnovate fellows spotted a more effective way of doing it.
Allen and Ford are working closely with Dr Gerry O’Sullivan, an interventional radiologist at University Hospital Galway – they have gone on to develop prototypes and they plan to bring the technology into preclinical trials.
"The innovation may be considered too niche for the corporates to invest in today, but we believe that it’s a niche area with tremendous growth potential," says Allen. "We intend to file a patent before Christmas and to eventually spin out a company."
2012-2013 BioInnovate fellows. From left: Kiel McCool, Ashwin Kher, Caroline Gaynor, David Brody, Sarah Loughney, Michael Morrissey, Chris McBrearty and Conor Harkin
Nine fellows recently started on the BioInnovate 2012/13 programme – this year based out of NUI Galway and the University of Limerick – and the focus for this group is on urology and radiational oncology.
Pharmacist Caroline Gaynor, who had been working in pharma regulation and market access before starting the fellowship, describes the experience so far.
"Fantastic – I learned an huge amount during ‘bootcamp’ in terms of what is involved in the innovation process and have been introduced to an incredible network of experts across all relevant areas," she says.
"We have just finished our first week of clinical immersion and really feel privileged to be afforded the opportunity to spend time in theatre and on the wards watching healthcare in action – all of the healthcare professionals, and indeed the patients have been incredibly generous with their time."
Gaynor adds that the "infectious" passion and drive of former BioInnovate fellows is inspiring.
"Hopefully we will identify a really relevant need and go on to secure funding in order to develop a cost-effective product that will truly impact patients’ health and outcomes."
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