BlueBridge: The great Irish medtech engineers you haven’t heard of

4 Mar 2021

Garret Coady, BlueBridge Technologies CEO, demonstrating the Resper device. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Since 2006, BlueBridge Technologies has been working behind the scenes of the world’s biggest medtech companies. Now, it’s stepping into the limelight.

If you know medical devices, you will know Medtronic and Boston Scientific. If you are, like these, a company developing medical devices, you will know BlueBridge Technologies.

Operating somewhat in the shadow of the corporate giants it services, this Irish company designs and builds devices specifically for the tightly regulated health space. Its clients include the aforementioned Medtronic and Boston Scientific, as well as US multinational Abbott Laboratories and Swiss pharma company Novartis.

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Helpfully, all of these brands and many more international life sciences companies have bases here in Ireland. In fact, Ireland has a well-developed ecosystem for medtech, an industry that requires the convergence of many monoliths. We have a substantial pharma footprint, a strong manufacturing sector with a particular strength in medical device manufacturing, plus a thriving tech sector.

Through the consumerisation of healthcare, these sectors are overlapping more and more. And according to BlueBridge Technologies CEO Garret Coady, patients now expect from medical care what the likes of Amazon can deliver in terms of smart, responsive, data-led technology. “So you need the technology, medical device and pharma industries to work a lot more intimately,” he said.

“It’s rare that some people can harness and marshal all of that skillset to deliver on the promise of digital health. And that’s a lot of what we’ve managed to build over the last number of years, making our blended capability very compelling to companies that are really trying to navigate this space,” he added.

‘Right now we’re going through quite a huge transformation with the digitalisation. This whole connected health space represents a massive opportunity’

Coady described work in the medical device industry as complex but phenomenally rewarding. Great products can save lives, but mistakes can be fatal.

“The output of what you end up delivering has to be trusted, has to rigidly adhere to what your market claims are. All of those things are quite intimately interrogated by the regulator, particularly as you’re doing more critical things for a patient, or if the risk of failure is significant,” he said.

Caution is crucial in this industry. No one wants to be responsible for a patient monitor that delivers the wrong data, or a medical device that malfunctions. This means progress must be made at a slow, considered pace.

“It’s the great thing about the industry, it demands this excellence in engineering and operational excellence to deliver,” Coady added. “But it’s also a very complex space. And right now we’re going through quite a huge transformation with the digitalisation. This whole connected health space represents a massive opportunity, but a massive challenge because you really do need a broad cross-section of individuals that in the past rarely coalesced in the same silo.”

From autotech to medtech

Coady is a man who knows a thing or two about transformation. The beginnings of BlueBridge can be traced back to his work at an Irish engineering design company that made high-tech mirrors for car manufacturers.

He worked in the R&D department of Donnelly Mirrors, where engineers were building the enabling technology for autonomous vehicles. This was the very early days of development for driverless cars, back when the idea still seemed more of a pipe dream. These engineers understood the challenge of bringing high-functioning, reasonably sophisticated technology to high-volume manufacturing in a high-liability industry.

Donnelly Mirrors was acquired by Magna International and, in 2006, the new owners announced the closure of the Kildare plant. But the skilled engineers cut loose by this closure decided to build something else.

“Being able to make things smart was the broad technical skillset. We decided to set up on our own as a result of funding ourselves with the severance package from Donnelly Mirrors and set off on a journey, pivoting into medical,” said Coady.

‘Industries such as pharma and medtech are one of the last industries to be truly, radically disrupted by the digital and internet age’

This pivot, however, was more of a side-step. The team from Donnelly had been working in the autotech space just as it was taking off and, with BlueBridge Technologies, turned their attention to the nascent medtech industry, spying a huge opportunity at the cusp of a transformation.

At this time, there was a maturing medtech industry in Ireland and a slow revolution was building up speed. Like everything, medtech was getting smart. Internet-connected devices that could really utilise the power of data were in demand.

“Industries such as pharma and medtech are one of the last industries to be truly, radically disrupted by the digital and internet age,” said Coady. And it’s for good reason that healthcare’s digital transformation has been more cautious than that of other industries such as travel and retail, and even of more risk-averse sectors such as banking and insurance.

Coady has been in the game for almost 15 years and it’s still just taking off. “It’s not necessarily going to be turned upside down as easily, maybe, as some of the other industries. But it’s absolutely going to be radically affected.”

Joining the dots

It takes a village to build medical technology, Coady explained. “We need a broad spectrum of disciplines. From at one end the mechanical engineer, and then at the other end you’ll need a data scientist or an artificial intelligence individual, and then a whole range of disciplines in between.”

However, working in healthcare helps to attract the multifaceted talent required. “Obviously there’s a war for talent at the moment. But you get to work in a challenging space, really improve yourself a lot. And the outcome is something that has a genuine impact on people’s lives.”

While he emphasises how rewarding the work is, Coady also maintains a sense of humility about BlueBridge’s contributions to healthcare. “We’re not going to come up with the new diabetes drug. That is not BlueBridge,” he said.

“BlueBridge can coalesce with that to fill in the gaps. Because this is a fractured, fragmented space where a lot of the tools already exist out there, but they haven’t been brought together to join these dots. And a lot of the time, software is the thing that will underpin and make sure that these worlds are glued together.”

Doing this work has required significant investment to achieve the right qualifications and certifications to guarantee trust and reliability, and Coady said the business gets “audited within an inch of our life” by clients and notified bodies. But the effort has paid off and BlueBridge has proven itself around the world, winning business from Switzerland to Silicon Valley.

“It’s been 13 years. This didn’t happen overnight,” Coady said. “And those clients have taken many years of us proving ourselves and building up the level of trust. Because what we’re taking on from them, we’re really essentially their R&D and engineering departments taking on very system-critical, very complex projects.”

He explained that it can take up to eight years for a client to fully embrace BlueBridge into its inner circle, but these long-term efforts offer long-lasting gains. “It’s a huge investment for these large companies to onboard any company into their vendor network. So they’re very slow and very picky about who they bring in. But they’re very reluctant to drop that relationship once it’s established, so that’s really something that’s helping us a lot.”

Covid-19 response

Recently, BlueBridge leveraged its international partnerships in the development of Resper, a hand-held inhaler-like device that measures lung functions. This product was built on the back of BlueBridge’s experience with pulse oximetry and spirometry, which measure oxygenation of the blood and pulmonary function, respectively. This capability in a practical, mobile device could have a role to play in the future management of Covid-19.

The project has received backing from the European Space Agency, and US company Actuate Technologies has partnered with BlueBridge to commercialise the technology when it becomes available.

In a pilot demonstration to be finalised soon, Resper will send data from the device to a centralised server using mobile networks and the EU’s Galileo satellite network. The idea is that it could help monitor the progress of Covid-19 in real time.

“This is where the power of data comes in,” said Coady. “Once you’ve got the connectivity and you’re getting real-life data – unpolluted, free-of-artefact-data – direct from an individual, you’ve got a valued asset there that you can harvest to derive further insights.”

A clinical trial of Resper will launch in Italy this summer. It will be used by clinicians, not patients, as BlueBridge seeks to train them in use of the device and get their buy-in for its adoption. At the present stage, it’s something that can help with monitoring symptoms, but there is potential for the technology to do more.

“Just giving those [measurements] out in isolation cannot be used as a Covid diagnostic, but by combining them with weighted averages and some machine learning, you have the ability to get closer to a potential diagnostic. But it would have some ways to go before it would absolutely prove that,” said Coady.

“At the moment it’s much more what you would call a screening tool rather than a diagnostic. It wouldn’t compare to the PCR tests, but it could potentially be cheaper. And it has other uses on the recovery side of Covid as well.”

‘Where we normally would get to in five years, we’ve just got to it within six months’

Just as BlueBridge is responding to Covid-19 with new developments, so too is the industry at large. Devices such as Resper are all about leveraging technology for the transformation of health, and the momentum for this shift has never been stronger. Previous political and organisational inertia has received a shot in the arm from the global pandemic.

“It’s not exactly an industry that hungrily mops up brand new shiny innovation,” Coady said. “They’re very conservative. But what’s happened now is that with remote working and the remote delivery of health care, they know there’s no other choice. And it’s just amazing how quickly those barriers have dropped.”

There are some who believe adaptation under the pandemic has accelerated healthcare’s digital transformation by up to five years. According to Coady, “Where we normally would get to in five years, we’ve just got to it within six months.”

And if you’re watching this future of healthcare space, you are sure to start seeing more of BlueBridge Technologies.

“We absolutely have a very ambitious growth plan. We’re targeting to be four or five times our size in five years,” said Coady, who’s eyeing a market opportunity he says will be worth $31bn by 2024.

“The players in the market are struggling to respond to the needs of this world because of the unique blend of experience and skillset that you need. So it’s a huge opportunity both for BlueBridge and for Ireland.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.