A great idea in medical technology can perish or flourish depending on whether there’s a genuine market need for it. So innovators in Ireland need to take a hard look not just at home but also internationally to see whether and where their technologies can have a clinical and commercial impact.
That’s according to Andrew Jones, who has more than 30 years of experience working with and leading companies in the sector. One of his most recent successes was as CEO of the Enniscorthy, Co Wexford-based ClearStream Technologies, which CR Bard acquired in 2011.
The company had been developing and manufacturing catheters to deliver devices to coronary arteries. But in the mid-2000s ClearStream made a strategic move towards the peripheral blood vessel market, and it developed an innovative balloon device to help repair vessels in the lower limbs.
The shift was the making of the company, which built its research, development and international sales, most notably in southern Europe and in Asia.
"It was a deliberate move into the peripheral vasculature sector at a relatively early stage and we got there before a lot of other companies," recalls Jones at his base in south Kilkenny, where he now runs a business consultancy, Med Dev Strategies.
"A lot of other companies are trying to move into that peripheral space now and it is also seeing a lot of price pressure, so the growth in that segment is starting to slow. In this case it was easier to lead than to follow."
The importance of looking internationally
ClearStream’s successful market shift was informed by talking to clinicians not only in Ireland but also overseas, particularly in Italy, where lower limb complications of diabetes are treated at specialist hospitals. Then company’s engineers worked with clinicians to develop new devices that could target the hard-to-access blood vessels in the foot.
It’s an exemplary reminder that healthcare delivery and policies differ according to country and region, and that getting to grips with the different landscapes can help to identify the emerging market for a product, according to Jones.
"The healthcare policies and clinical practices in relation to treatment of diabetes are radically different in Italy compared to the UK, Ireland and most of northern Europe," he says. "If I had driven ClearStream off a conversation with only doctors in Ireland, I may never have got to the diabetic foot and lower limb markets that were the clear driver of ClearStream’s success."
That’s not to say Irish doctors don’t innovate, he stresses, and Irish clinicians were involved in developing ClearStream’s approach.
"Innovation can come from the clinician in Ireland very definitively, but you still have to work out whether there’s a market need for that innovation – you do still need to go and ask doctors in other countries to get a sense of what that practice is and whether that device has real potential there."
Today, Jones works with Enterprise Ireland’s business mentor programme and he will chair a session at the Big Ideas Showcase on 28 November at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
He welcomes the work being done in Ireland to encourage innovators in higher-education institutes to engage with potential business mentors and investors.
"The whole idea of bringing out these projects and matching them up to VCs, potential business partners and angel investors is absolutely the right thing to do," he says.
"There are quite a lot of people at the angel investor level who could provide valuable market insight if those connections are made."
But Jones cautions that innovators need to be realistic about what makes a sensible business model for bringing a medical technology to the clinic – again we are back to assessing real market need.
"If a technology is aimed at niche markets and isn’t scalable into other activities, it’s hard to see the realistic prospects for it," he says. "You need to keep sight of the market."
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