Ireland has the perfect DNA to lead the global biopharma revolution

30 Nov 2015

Cork harbour, where some of the leading global biopharma cluster companies have a base

Just as the Pentium did for the computer industry in the 1990s, Ireland is once again home to a potent mixture of world leading, world-changing companies and technologies. This time it is biopharma and human history will be transformed forever.

Back in the 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry had its work cut out for itself on the PR front, dogged by environmental concerns not helped by an enduring image of smoke stacks. While local hubs like Cork and the harbour around Ringaskidddy boasted some of the biggest names in pharmaceuticals, the evolution of the industry at that time in Ireland was mainly around processing ingredients for mass manufacture.

Around the same time, one-third of the Pentium chips manufactured to meet global demand during the PC revolution were made here in Ireland. And not one person on the street in Ireland knew about it.

Zoom forward to 2015 and history is repeating itself. Another technological revolution is in full swing on these shores and, once again, no-one knows about it.

An industry spread through the regions

After 50 years, the biopharma industry in Ireland has evolved to embrace R&D close to manufacture and the biopharma plants dotted around Ireland are now making products so valuable to cure heart disease and treat cancer that they could eclipse even the Pentium chip’s impact on the march of history.

These biopharma operations are not about smoke stacks but, in fact, resemble college campuses where thousands of people could be at work, culminating in a single vial containing molecules and elements potentially worth billions of dollars.

It is 2015, and Ireland is now the 7th largest exporter of medicine and pharmaceutical products in the world, with the amount of products exported annually reaching €39bn.

The industry is in evolution from the new model of biological production where drugs are practically programmed to interact with cells in our bodies and fight diseases.

Nine of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies have substantial operations in Ireland and more than 25,000 people are employed in the industry, which includes names like Johnson & Johnson, Amgen, Pfizer, Novartis, GSK, Allergan, Abbvie, Abbot, Teva, Lilly and Genzyme.

The march of technology is obvious in that in 12 years biotech manufacturing sites in Ireland have grown from just two in 2003 to 18 today.

The focus on biologics has amounted to more than €10bn invested in new biological production in Ireland in the last decade.

In total, there are 90 biopharmaceutical plants located in Ireland, out of which 33 are approved by the powerful Federal Drugs Administration to export products for consumption in the US.

Formula for investment and skills

Ireland has risen to the challenge of fostering this industry to grow in Ireland, not only to sustain the multinationals, but provide opportunities for indigenous multinationals to emerge.

To give you a picture, some €8bn has been committed by the Irish Government to research in priority areas like technology and life sciences. Added to this, some €1.4bn is being spent in-house by IDA client companies focused on manufacturing process development.

To meet the challenge, the Irish Government has invested through the IDA in the creation of the National Institute for Bioprocessing and Training (NIBRT), a global centre of excellence in Dublin based on an innovative collaboration between higher education institutes, Government and academia. NIBRT offers a quality training and research experience not previously possible anywhere in the world.

“The change occuring in the biopharma industry is a sea change similar to what’s happening in the tech world, going from hardware to software to the internet and to the cloud,” explained Killian O’Driscoll, projects director at NIBRT. “The change is that the industry is transitioning from a chemical processing model to high-value biopharmaceutical investment. If you look closely, the most recent investments have been biotech investment in highly-complex, cutting-edge science. Resulting in really high-value products.”

O’Driscoll illustrates the advances by pointing to a new facility being constructed near Blanchardstown by Bristol Myers Squibb involving a €900m investment and which will employ up to 500 people, including engineers, scientists, technicians and management – a broad range of skills.

“The products they will be developing and manufacturing will treat diseases previously thought to be incurable. Their flagship drug Opdivo – the science behind it is incredible – will play a dramatic role in treating diseases like melanoma by stimulating the immune system to fight cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, which is like blanket bombing the cancer cells, these technologies will use therapies that marshall your own immune system to fight cancer, using your immune system as soldiers on the front line.”

O’Driscoll also pointed to AbbVie in Sligo, which is part of the supply chain behind the production of Humira, currently the most valuable drug in the world, which is used to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

“These products, however, are challenging to manufacture and the reason Ireland is attracting this level of investment is because of the talent. These companies are making 30-year investments in their future.”

The range of talent required is extraordinary. O’Driscoll pointed out how it is becoming more similar to Silicon Valley in outlook. “It requires chemists, molecular biologists, biochemical enignineers, quality and supply chain expertise. A whole range of biotech drugs are being created to treat previously unmet medical needs.”

O’Driscoll says that many of the new generation of biopharma companies have their homes in Boston and California and culturally have a lot more in common with Silicon Valley than the process industry of the past.

“It is, however, a very heavily regulated industry and as a result of a raft and range of clinical trials and capital intensive investment, the industry is perhaps more conservative than the internet industry and not as good at telling its story.”

But what Ireland has to offer is talented people. “Upward of 20pc of third level graduates come from STEM courses and a considerable portion of that goes into biotech.”

Not onlythat, but as process industries can transition to biotech manufacturing, O’Driscoll says experienced engineers and managers can be upskilled quite easily to work in the biotech industry. “What we haveis a strong supply chain into the sector in a number of key areas, but also there is a requirement for people with experience in key areas. The ultimate object is to develop Ireland as a global biopharma cluster.”

A design for life sciences

IDA Ireland’s head of life sciences, Barry Heavey, agrees: “Tim Cook from Apple can get up and say how wonderful a new product is, but the life sciences and biopharma company leaders can’t do that. Because of legal regulatory practices, conservatism is endemic in the industry and no one over promises on a product.

“As someone who used to work in the industry, however, and who understands the science of the things these companies are working on, it is hugely exciting.”

Heavey explains that the drugs that biopharma companies are developing in Ireland today are fundamentally more complex and more targeted on outcomes.

“They can treat diseases more effectively than traditional molecules developed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. They are developing drugs for molecular biology, manufacturing drugs in a more precise, efficient manner and more cost effectively. The upshot, however, is the capital investment is more expensive.”

But the value of these products is extraordinary. AbbVie’s Humira product for arthritis is targeting $13bn in sales. “It doesn’t just treat pain but stops the disease from spreading.”

He also pointed to Bristol Myers Squibb’s Opdivo product, recently approved by the FDA for lung cancer, which is also targeting $7bn in sales.

“In Waterford, Sanofi Genzyme is investing €44m in its campus to increase production of its Lantus product, a new long-acting insulin product, which is targeting $8bn in sales and aimed at the 400m people in the world today who have diabetes.”

Heavey continued: “All of these biopharma companies are targeting sales north of $1bn and even $10bn. You are witnessing Pentium chip scale of sales but also huge longevity in the production and processes.

“As long as the patent is viable, these companies have the ability to bring in huge revenues.”

Looking to the future, Heavey said that there are enormous opportunities to bring in additional manufacturing capacity into Ireland to support biopharma, medical devices and microelectronics.

“We have the manufacturing and management experience, the talented workforce and the flow of graduates that the biopharma industry wants,” Heavey concluded. “Allied with the investment we have made in NIBRT to support the skills pipeline and the strong reputation Ireland has for being a safe set of hands for producing key products, we have the right DNA to be a leader in the biopharma revolution.”

Biopharma in Ireland infographic



Cork harbour image at top via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years