Plant the seeds now to scale up Ireland’s biotech ambition

25 Sep 2017

Image: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Ireland has already reaped a €3bn whirlwind from biotech, but the size of the prize could be even larger if we consider the entrepreneurial dimension, writes John Kennedy.

Biotech Week

You won’t see these people strutting around like peacocks at the multitude of summits that add a layer of fantasy to the tricky and soon-to-be-troubled world of technology. They hold in their hands the potential for generating thousands of jobs across Ireland and the world, yet no one knows about them.

Part of it is the level of secrecy, long lab hours, high standards and negotiation that comes with biotech and creating something revolutionary out of molecules, compounds and organisms. Part of it is the subdued nature of science communication in the Irish media, or, to be honest, zero interest from the mainstream media. And part of it is the industry itself needing to tell its story better.

I had to pick my jaw up from my desk when I got off the phone last week with Darren Cunningham, CEO of Inflection Biosciences, a Dublin company on the verge of groundbreaking treatments for cancer that could improve the lives of millions. In the coming years, Cunningham and his team will potentially create a multibillion-euro homegrown Irish company of global renown.

It is Biotech Week here at, so keep your eyes peeled for my interview with Cunningham and a raft of other stories from the SR team that will shed light on this enigmatic industry.

The whole biotech industry – anchored around the manipulation of biological cells and micro-organisms, for the creation of products such as antibiotics, hormones and drugs that will improve the health of the planet – needs to be better understood. It is not just about health, it is about the future of food and agriculture, the future of materials for manufacturing, and a lot more.

Biotech often gets lumped in with the overall biopharma and life sciences industries in Ireland, which generates €39bn worth of exports every year. More than 25,000 people are employed in the industry, according to 2015 figures from IDA Ireland.

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

But, when it comes to biotech specifically – the manipulation of actual organisms in a technology based purely on biology – more work needs to be done to explain the sector’s potential.

According to BioPharmaChem Ireland, recent capital investment of more than €3bn from global biotech companies has cemented Ireland as a leading location for this activity.

In February 2018, a major all-island event called BioPharma Ambition will be held in Dublin, organised by the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, NIBRT and BioPharmaChem Ireland. It follows up on the inaugural BioPharma Ambition event held in 2016 at Dublin Castle.

It is an effort by the industry to better tell its story.

And the story is happening in various threads, emboldened by homegrown stories such as Elan, and how various support industries such as software and engineering are clustering around the biotech opportunity.

The story transcends biotech at its most fundamental – the creation of lifesaving drugs through the manipulation of biology – and sees the rise of a host of engineering and IT businesses designed to support it.

If you drive to Dublin every day from the north-west, you will see the massive $400m biotech investment by Shire taking shape. Once the plant is fully active, it will employ 400 people.

Also in Dublin, a company called Daybreak Information Technologies is to create 50 new IT jobs to support the biotech sector.

In Athlone, Alexion will create 40 new jobs at a new vialling facility in the former Elan buildings.

In Waterford, global healthcare giant Sanofi has invested €44m in new facilities for the manufacture of insulin products at the Genzyme biotech plant.

In Cork, GSK is investing €12m in a Kilo Scale Facility, allowing the site to begin manufacturing highly specialised active ingredients for newer, targeted oncology medicine.

Create a chain reaction among start-ups

We need to make more noise about biotech entrepreneurs.

To give you a picture of how little understood the sector is – from an entrepreneurial perspective – I’d like to point out one of my favourite entrepreneurs to emerge from the Limerick region: Prof Mark Davies. Davies, an academic from the UK who came to University of Limerick (UL) 27 years ago to lecture, along with fellow mechanical engineer and research colleague Dr Tara Dalton, founded Stokes Bio in 2006 to provide genetic analysis systems for the agri-food industry.

The technology, built around newly invented microfluidic systems to enable rapid genetic analysis, quickly attracted venture capital funding. Stokes Bio was sold in 2010 to a US company called Life Technologies, which was then acquired by Thermo Fisher for $13.6bn in 2015.

GenCell, a spin-out of Stokes Bio – which enabled the processing of DNA data at unprecedented speeds – led by one of Davies’ former students, Dr Kieran Curran, was sold to Becton Dickinson in 2015 for $150m.

Having major successes such as the sale of Stokes Bio and GenCell is just as big as any successful sale of a software company in Dublin, for example, but no one seems to be talking up the Limerick region’s potential.

Davies is back at work on his next venture, Hooke Bio, which has built a machine to enable the fast analysis of pharmacological compounds, including their correlation to known disease profiles. Davies believes Hooke Bio has the potential to eclipse both Stokes Bio and GenCell in terms of market size.

People such as Davies, Dalton and Curran are just the tip of the iceberg.

In Cork, biotech company Metabolomic Diagnostics, which provides predictive screening for complications of pregnancy, raised €1.6m in a funding round last year to develop a product that could save the lives of thousands of women and their babies through personalised medical interventions.

In June, Institute of Carlow-based MicroGen Biotech won the Thrive Sustainability award at the Forbes AgTech Summit in California, completing a hat-trick of Irish wins in this arena, with Nora Khaldi’s Nuritas winning at Thrive in 2015, and Gary Wickham’s MagGrow recognised in 2016. Headed by Xuemei Germaine, MicroGen Biotech applies constructed, functional, microbiome technology to increase crop yield and health, while protecting food safety by remediating pollutants and improving soil fertility. The start-up has developed a fast and efficient technology that allows identification of functional microbes in four months – a process that can typically take years.

In July, 15 biotech and life sciences start-ups in Cork under SOSV accelerator RebelBio, representing the bleeding edge of science and entrepreneurship, presented their breakthroughs at a RebelBio Demo Day in London.

And yet, the opportunities that biotech as an industry within the overall biopharma and life sciences realm can afford a whole new generation of entrepreneurs is not fully understood. Tech entrepreneurship is not all about apps, you know.

It is certainly understood by a large cohort of the secondary-school students who make their way to the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) every year and who continue to wow with their focus on biology.

Last week, we featured an interview with the head of the BTYSTE, Mari Cahalane, who pointed out that many of the jobs of the future that young attendees will work in have not yet been invented. A BT study of STEM students at UL revealed that 70pc of them are hoping to stay and work in the wider Limerick region.

But what if we considered that their future is to not only stay and work, but to create and lead companies? That’s ambition. That’s vision.

I guarantee you, if you replicated that study at academic institutions in Cork, Waterford, Galway, Mayo, Sligo or elsewhere in Ireland’s regions, a similar statistic would be arrived at.

Biotech – moreover, Ireland’s biotech ambition – holds the magic formula for a prosperous entrepreneurial future in all corners of the land. It is time to plant those seeds.

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

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