Life sciences: The €39bn export story everyone should know about

29 May 2017

Cork harbour. Image: karremanphotograph/Shutterstock

Ireland’s life sciences industry is breathing life into the regions, but it needs to get better at telling its story, writes John Kennedy.

Life Sciences Week 2017

Back in the ’90s, when the internet was but a pup and magazines were the thing, one of my first jobs in media was working on a variety of computer, electronics and chemical publications. Because most of those magazines were monthly affairs, the latitude to go off and do research in libraries, pore over manuscripts and industry yearbooks, or go out and explore industry and meet the people would astonish today’s hamster-on-a-wheel digital worker.

Future Human

I used the time wisely. My favourite go-to place was the old Enterprise Ireland library at Sandymount where, on cold winter days, the warmth of the library and its cocoon of silence allowed me to get a sense of the to and fro of exports, the ebb and flow of statistics, and find out exactly who was who.

I used to criss-cross the country by train to meet the then kings and queens of industry at companies such as Apple, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Beecham and Pfizer, to name a few; just to figure out how they did what they did and why. The chemical industry at the time was fascinating.

I remember the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. I remember walking through and inspecting the plants of these companies. I remember attending court cases in Cork after a fire broke out at a Hickson chimney stack. In those days, the impact of Chernobyl was still only being understood and fears of similar disasters across the pond in Sellafield meant that any little incident at a chemical plant locally was treated with exaggerated suspicion and fear.

At this time, the chemical, pharmaceutical and process industries – many of them concentrated in Ringaskiddy and Carrigaline in Cork and around Shannon – were small parts of a global supply chain, with an emphasis on the process part.

But, since then, the industry has moved up the stack, so to speak. Yes, the firms are part of the process, but a much bigger part.

A new perception is needed

Part of that understanding changed when plants such as Pfizer began manufacturing publicly recognisable products such as Viagra locally, prompting lewd jokes about the so-called ‘Pfizer riser’ in Cork.

However, the perception of smoke stacks and environmental hazards has long been replaced by operations that resemble Google campuses, as biotech and life sciences take on a new respectability and share of responsibility for the production of life-saving treatment and globally recognisable brands.

This was enshrined in my mind a few years ago when speaking with IDA Ireland’s deputy CEO Mary Buckley, then in charge of the Americas, who informed me that Ireland is only second to the US in the world for its concentration of life sciences and biotech companies.

There are as many strains to what constitutes life sciences, pharma and biotech activities as there are arteries and blood vessels in the human body.

Taken as a whole, figures from 2015 show that the biopharma industries are reaching a critical mass in the same way that Ireland’s digital industries have.

The industry is evolving to a new model of production known as biologics, where drugs can be practically programmed to interact with the cells in our bodies to fight disease.

Ireland is the seventh-largest exporter of medicine and pharmaceutical products in the world.

In 2015, pharma exports reached €39bn. More than 25,000 people are employed in the industry.

In total, there are more than 90 biopharma plants located in Ireland, out of which 33 are approved by the Food and Drugs Administration to export products to the US.

Nine out of 10 of the world’s pharmaceutical companies are here, including Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Novartis, AbbVie, Abbott, Teva, Eli Lilly and Genzyme.

The evolution towards biologics has seen more than €10bn invested in new biological production facilities in the last decade.

There are more than 18 biotech manufacturing facilities located across Ireland today, up from just two in 2003.

For example, major player Bristol-Myers Squibb is investing €900m in a manufacturing plant that will employ 500 engineers, scientists, technicians and management.

From an indigenous perspective, the game is changing. The Government has invested through the IDA to create the National Institute for Bioprocessing and Training (NIBRT), to upskill workers for the new chapter of life sciences and biopharma.

New homegrown companies such as APC are emerging to help pharma companies streamline the development of medicines in various fields, including cancer and HIV. In just four years, the company has grown revenues to €15m and is aiming to increase this to €50m a year within five years. Led by former UCD academics Mark Barrett and Brian Glennon, APC last year announced 100 new jobs at Cherrywood in Dublin.

Another indigenous player to watch is Irish life sciences and analytics start-up Genomics Medicine Ireland, which is creating 150 new jobs after securing $40m to analyse the human genome at a population scale.

In February of this year, Dublin venture capital firm Seroba closed a €100m Life Sciences Fund III dedicated to product-focused, innovative, early- and mid-stage life sciences companies in Ireland, the UK and other European markets.

Biotech entrepreneur Nora Khaldi’s Nuritas has received backing from U2’s Bono and The Edge as well as Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, and is in the process of tripling its workforce in Ireland to more than 60 people.

An industry with a distinct Irish accent

The life sciences industry in Ireland is dynamic and has a distinctive Irish accent in that most of its management and senior people grew up in the industry locally, where they honed their skills.

The industry has moved beyond the environmental fear-mongering label of the 1990s, but it still has a perception problem: not enough people in Ireland are aware of what is on their doorstep, of its potency and its potential.

More people need to know about this valuable, life-saving, life-changing industry, and those very people are carrying schoolbags this morning.

The life sciences and biopharma industries are every bit as exciting as the digital industries led by Google or Facebook. The difference is the highly detailed, scientific nature of the work, and the conservative nature of a regulation-heavy industry tends to hold back the story of the impact these companies are making.

Did you know, for example, that the biggest producer of safe, clinically tested baby food on the planet happens to be Cork?

The industry itself needs to tell its story and encourage new generations of young people who want to make their mark on the world to join its ranks.

This week at, our Life Sciences Week will shed light on the important work happening on the ground here in Ireland.

We will talk to senior leaders at Johnson & Johnson, Genomics Medicine Ireland, the IDA, NIBRT, Ibec, MSD, the Health Products Regulatory Authority and many others to get a sense of the energy driving the sector.

The life sciences industries in Ireland – including biopharma, biotech and medical devices – are pushing towards a Pentium chip moment as the worlds of chemistry, biology and digital fuse together and new life-saving treatments are discovered.

Ireland is centre stage.

It is a story that needs to be heard.

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