How to stimulate big ideas in healthcare

20 Nov 2020

Image: © Prostock-studio/

Ahead of the Enterprise Ireland Big Ideas showcase, we spoke to some research-led, experience-driven start-ups that could change the future of health.

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This year, Enterprise Ireland’s annual Big Ideas showcase will take place virtually, with a dozen research-led and investor-ready start-ups pitching their ideas to an audience of Ireland’s research and investment communities.

“We have a vibrant, strong research-led start-up scene in Ireland,” said Deirdre Glenn, director of life sciences at Enterprise Ireland. “In 2019 Enterprise Ireland approved 91 high-potential start-up investments and, of these, 13 are already successfully commercialised in partnership with our third-level research institutions.”

This year, of all years, innovation’s importance in tackling global problems has come into clear focus and, while early-stage start-up funding has taken a hit, companies with novel ideas in health and medtech in particular are expected to weather 2020’s stormy environment.

In Ireland, recent success stories in this sector include Galway-based Venari Medical, which recently closed €4.5m in seed equity funding to advance its minimally invasive treatment of chronic venous disease. This summer, Irish-German medical device start-up OneProjects secured €11m in Series A funding for its device to treat atrial fibrillation.

Last year, Trinity College Dublin spin-out CroíValve scored a record angel round of €3.2m to further develop its minimally invasive treatment for life-threatening heart conditions. And the year before that, Galway medtech start-up Neurent Medical raised a massive €9.3m in funding to develop a technology that allows doctors to treat rhinitis, a nasal condition, in offices rather than in a surgery.

Each of these research-led start-ups has received backing from Enterprise Ireland, and Glenn said this kind of support for researchers and clinicians is “critical to the success of the Irish economy”.

“As part of our role in the Government strategy to support research and innovation, we provide access to significant national and international funding streams,” she said. “In the healthcare sector we fund the Health Innovation Hub Ireland, a clinical industry liaison officer role and BioInnovate.”

This last programme in particular often produces spin-outs with ‘big ideas’ for the annual showcase. Based in Galway, BioInnovate sets out to identify and address unmet clinical needs by immersing its fellows – a mix of clinicians, businesspeople and academics – in healthcare settings. The result sees teams devise and develop medical technologies in direct response to a clear demand.

Commercialising ideas

SymPhysis Medical, for example, came from the experience of founders Dr Michelle Tierney and Tim Jones on this programme. Jones had been interested in BioInnovate since he first heard of the programme in 2011, but it wasn’t until he had worked up five years of experience working in medtech with Medtronic in Galway that he decided he was ready to apply.

“As a part of the respiratory team, specifically interventional pulmonology, we identified a significant unmet need related to a fluid build-up on the lung. Michelle Tierney and I had a really strong feeling about trying to address this issue and since we completed the programme have been building the solution and building the business.”

Jones and Tierney’s solution is RelEase, a catheter-based technology that can relieve the shortness of breath and chest pain that comes as a common complication of late-stage cancers. Jones said that this tech can prevent fluid on the lung from reaccumulating after four weeks and the device is also designed so that patients can treat themselves at home.

‘We envision heart valves being manufactured more sustainably in the future’

Big Ideas start-ups have also benefitted from Enterprise Ireland’s Commercialisation Fund. This programme centres on the transfer of innovations developed in higher-education institutions and research centres to industry, through the application of business development expertise. The fund is available to projects that address a gap in the market with solutions that will, ideally, be ready for licensing to Irish industry or to spin out as a start-up within two to five years.

One such project is Lifelet Medical co-founded by Elle Sander, a biomedical engineer at the NUI Galway cardiovascular research centre.

“It is a blessing to have NUI Galway as a home base where we can tap into the wealth of technical, clinical and commercial expertise within this ecosystem,” said Sander. “The Enterprise Ireland network, mentorship and camaraderie with fellow NUI Galway start-ups have all been crucial in our progress to date.”

At Lifelet, Sander is developing a novel biomimetic material for heart valve replacements. These materials need to be both strong and flexible, and Lifelet’s polymeric material is said to be long-lasting and durable, decreasing the need for further operations.

Lifelet is also thinking sustainably, and aims to reinvent the paradigm of valve manufacturing to be environmentally friendly as well as scalable, time-efficient and cost-effective.

“We envision heart valves being manufactured more sustainably in the future,” said Sander. “Lifelet aims to improve patient outcomes first and foremost, and our solution also streamlines the supply chain, reduces waste and eliminates the need for costly and inefficient animal tissue.”

‘Through our immersion in hospitals we gained experience and insights that are extremely difficult to identify from the outside’

Another Commercialisation Fund awardee is Biologit, a Trinity College Dublin start-up developing artificial intelligence that can assist pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the mammoth task of literature monitoring. This discipline of pharmacovigilance involves reviewing the vast number of medical extracts published each year as well as, increasingly, forums such as social media, to identify any red flags regarding adverse effects of drugs on the market.

Biologit is already working alongside 20 pilot partners in the pharma industry on real-world tasks, rigorously testing its AI models across a variety of cases. Co-founder Nicole Baker said this technology will be all the more important in the coming year, with the expected worldwide roll-out of rapidly developed Covid-19 vaccines.

“We need to be fast. We need to get funding fairly quickly to be able to go out there and do it in a way that is a much higher scale than the technology that is out there now,” she said.

It’s not just businesses but regulatory agencies such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that could benefit from Biologit’s technology in this urgent context. And in the long-term, Baker would even like to see her company support transparency of information for patients too.

“The aim is the same: that everybody gets the correct and concise information in a timely manner,” she said.

This is possible, Baker explained, because the AI is built so that you can search for information on any drug you want, and be assured of the quality of that information.

“There is a lot of publicly available information out there but people don’t know about it. If you go to the EMA, if you go to the WHO, if you go to the FDA, their websites have a lot of information that is free for anybody to search and find information about drugs that are in clinical development or in the market, but the laypeople, they don’t know about that. They go on Google, but Google doesn’t contain all the information. It doesn’t filter in a way that gives you the scientific information first.”

In Baker’s case, she brings more than two decades’ experience in academia, pharma, regulation and clinical research to this project. Sander brings her expertise as a biomedical engineer to Lifelet. And Jones had already accrued extensive experience in the medical device industry before devising SymPhysis Medical. For him, the personal experience of the need his company is addressing was “invaluable”.

“Through our immersion in hospitals we gained experience and insights that are extremely difficult to identify from the outside. We were also able to build the foundations of the strong relationships we have to this day with clinicians and healthcare providers,” he said.

“For me, personally, it also tied me emotionally to the solution and certainly fuelled my passion for helping patients.”

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.