Back to the future: The first steps in establishing the Irish biotech cluster

29 May 2017124 Shares

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Sean Ward made the first strategic move in establishing Ireland as a biotech cluster. Image: Still Life Photography/Shutterstock

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Dr Barry Heavey remembers one man’s big bet on attracting inward investment for a then early-stage biopharmaceutical manufacturing project in the 1980s, which Ireland has paid back many times over.

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Despite his unassuming nature, Sean Ward can lay claim to being one of the founding fathers of the burgeoning Irish biotech cluster, which has seen more than €10bn in new investment in the last 10 years and is forecast to add 5,000 new jobs in the coming years in Ireland.

The basis for my assertion dates back to the time that Sean worked with IDA Ireland in the early 1980s, when he and his team in IDA was instrumental in winning the first biotech investment from Schering-Plough (now MSD) in 1983. Schering was so impressed with Sean, they hired him and he served in a variety of roles in the US and Ireland, including director of manufacturing and strategic operations, until he retired in 2000.

Trailblazer investment

The success of Schering’s investment in Brinny, Co Cork was hugely significant in establishing Ireland as a location of choice for biotech investment. It was a trailblazer investment at precisely the time when the biotech revolution was taking off globally, and put Ireland firmly on the map in the sector. The success of that initial investment created a reputation for Ireland that would result in massive additional investment from companies such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Bristol-Myers Squibb, Shire, MSD, Regeneron, Amgen, Eli Lilly, Alexion, Sanofi, GE and Allergan in subsequent decades.

Given Sean’s key role in both initially winning that investment while in IDA, and his role in making it a success in Schering, I was keen to talk to him to learn more about his experiences and insights.

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Irish ambition

Sean grew up in the 1950s, and he describes Ireland of the time as “bleak”, with a pervasive view that the country would not develop a strong industry base because it had no coal and iron deposits. He saw first-hand how many schoolmates were effectively left with no choice but to emigrate. “It really used to break my heart because I knew guys who were bright, who, if they had been given the chance, were capable of a great deal more than that,” he says.

This experience shaped his thinking. After working with the Electricity Supply Board, he moved to ICI in the UK, and of this time he said, “While I enjoyed my time in the UK and learned a huge amount there, I always felt that I would have liked to have a life that didn’t coerce me into being an emigrant.”

His role in ICI allowed him to return to Dublin in the early ’70s, where he started to notice what the then-Industrial Development Authority (now IDA) was doing to grow and attract industry in Ireland, and applied for a job there.

“I took a 20pc drop in pay and had to give up my company car to join the IDA,” he recalls, “but I was delighted. I was working with a bunch of people who shared my attitude about doing the best for our country. We worked very well as a team, calling each other up in the evenings with advice and guidance on opportunities and challenges that were arising as we dealt with companies visiting Ireland on site visits. We weren’t paid overtime nor were we paid for our phone calls, but we felt compelled.”

Cultivating relationships

Sean was just a year in that role when he was selected to move to Chicago in 1973 with his family. “I was delighted to be in the front line, representing Ireland with clients. I felt I was pretty well equipped to cultivate relationships and I had some great wins during the six years I spent there,” he says. The companies he attracted to Ireland included Eli Lilly in Cork, Thermo King in Galway and Bausch & Lomb in Waterford.

‘I knew Ireland had plenty of brain power and I had a missionary zeal about harnessing that to ensure we had a chance to partake in the biotech revolution’
– SEAN WARD

In 1979, a vacancy came up for a promotion in Dublin to lead the IDA’s pharmaceutical and healthcare sector. He returned to find a significantly expanded organisation with almost 800 people. “It was an exciting time because one of my clients, Lilly, had just collaborated with an upstart biotech company called Genentech to develop the first biotech product: insulin. The biotech revolution was dependent on brain power, not coal or iron deposits. I knew Ireland had plenty of brain power and I had a missionary zeal about harnessing that to ensure we had a chance to partake in the biotech revolution.”

The catalyst

In 1982, Sean organised a meeting in IDA’s HQ on the theme of biotech, and invited all the relevant academics from Irish universities in Dublin, Cork and Galway. “I felt that biotech represented a huge opportunity and called the meeting to make the point that the biotech sector was burgeoning and could be a catalyst for significant industrial development in Ireland,” he recalls.

“My goal was to bring together the multidisciplinary skills that are essential for biotech – such as science, biochemistry and engineering – and ask the Government to commit £5m to £6m to pull together expertise.”

Government funding

Despite a huge response to this initiative, it wasn’t entirely successful, primarily because of the amount of disagreement between the academics, which Sean found quite disheartening. “Mistrust and mutual suspicion around the table was palpable and I even had to clarify that I wasn’t related to one of the academics!” Eventually, the Irish Government approved £4m in biotech funding. But, as Sean describes it, this money “was split across every point of the compass, which was all but useless”.

Sean is glad to hear that the Government has more recently committed substantive funding to biotech, and created a centre of excellence in the form of the National Institute for Bioprocess Research and Training (NIBRT).

Sean Ward, the father of the Irish biotech cluster. Image: IDA Ireland

Sean Ward, the father of the Irish biotech cluster. Image: IDA Ireland

Back to the early ’80s, Sean was targeting Schering-Plough, which had an active biotech R&D pipeline. “In particular, I built a relationship with John Nine, who was the senior VP in Schering-Plough at the time. We were facing severe competition from alternative locations, with Puerto Rico being particularly competitive at the time, but we positioned Ireland as a location with an extremely talented and highly educated, English-speaking workforce. We also had to act quickly and decisively in offering grant support to win the project – concrete evidence of support from IDA – and win it we did.”

Expansion

Such was the strength of Sean’s relationship with John Nine that he was offered a role in Schering in 1983. “I took it because it was a bloody good offer, so I dispensed with all the niceties and notions of patriotic endeavour!”

Sean was based in Brinny from 1983 to 1985 when the site was doing pilot production for its key biotech pipeline asset, Intron A. “I cut my teeth there when we had less than 100 people. I then moved to the role of director of manufacturing and strategic planning based in New Jersey and with significant time in other sites such as Puerto Rico and Memphis.” He was based in the US until 1991, when Intron A was approved by the FDA, and he was sent back to Brinny as the site underwent an enormous expansion for commercial production.

Academic engagement

The big challenge facing Sean was in recruiting people with relevant knowledge and experience. As he puts it: “Experienced biochemists were not hanging out of trees!”

Again, he worked closely with the local universities, engaging with their international alumni and sponsoring the first MSc in biotech in Galway. “I persuaded Schering to support some lecturers and the quid pro quo was that the academics would come out and liaise with our scientists and help us build a pipeline of suitably trained graduates. Not all of these interactions were successful – one lecturer felt we were impinging on their academic independence – but in general, we built up strong relationships with the universities and built a strong team in Brinny. I’ve always had the view that you will never see it on a balance sheet but the capability of the staff is the key success factor in any business, and we had that in abundance in Brinny.”

‘You will never see it on a balance sheet but the capability of the staff is the key success factor in any business, and we had that in abundance in Brinny’
– SEAN WARD

Brinny then became the postgraduate training centre for people who went on to other biotech sites in Ireland such as the Wyeth (now Pfizer) Grange Castle facility, and J&J and Lilly facilities in Cork. “I’m proud that we blazed the trail and helped to prove that Ireland could build and sustain such a successful cluster of biotech manufacturers,” is how Sean sums up his work.

Sean also pays tribute to the “very positive” attitude of people in Schering, such as John Nine, to IDA and Ireland. “I know that Schering’s positive experience and endorsements helped in convincing other companies to establish their biotech operations in Ireland. It was my job to ensure that that relationship between Schering and IDA stayed strong and that any issues that might arise were flagged to IDA and dealt with as soon as possible. Minimising bureaucracy and being responsive was key to maintaining a strong partnership.”

Ongoing opportunities

Looking forward, Sean sees huge opportunities to win investment in areas such as research and innovation, and he believes investing in these areas will attract companies. But he warns: “We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult this will be because the international competition is intense. We have to put enough bait on the hook to attract in companies, and we have to place a few bets on a few long shots.”

Sean Ward had a passion for his country and a vision that Ireland could use the natural resource it had in abundance – talent – to win in a revolutionary new area of technology. He convinced IDA to take a big leap of faith in trying to attract the first biotech investment in the early 1980s when the technology was relatively nascent. He can be enormously proud of his achievement with that investment and the ripple effect it has had in the Irish economy since then.

Dr Barry Heavey served as head of life sciences, engineering and industrial tech for IDA Ireland from January 2016. He recently left IDA for a role in the private sector.

A version of this article originally appeared on the IDA Ireland website and LinkedIn Pulse.

Barry Heavey is the life sciences practice lead at Accenture Ireland

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