Let’s make Ireland Europe’s Silicon Valley of medtech

5 Jun 2018

Image: HQuality/Shutterstock

Few industries offer Ireland as good an opportunity to leap straight into the fourth industrial revolution as medtech, writes John Kennedy.

As I disembarked a flight in Stockholm in January 2017, I joined a huddle of tech investors and entrepreneurs on a fact-finding mission to the Nasdaq First North stock exchange.

Some of these individuals I knew quite well or in passing, others were new to me. As we clambered aboard a high-speed train that whooshed us into the city centre, among our group was a guy who dragged a big case with him and stood protectively over it as if it contained the crown jewels. He spoke with zeal and conviction about how his machine would be a revolutionary force in healthcare.

Future Human

I’m used to people’s eyes flashing with passion as they espouse their technology, but as I got to know Jim Joyce better there was an earnest quality that was hard not to admire. Joyce, an Irish-American who was the son of a classic American salesman, matched business and marketing acumen with a thorough knowledge of technology and medicine. He came to Ireland as an executive for an FDI company, pharma giant Schering-Plough, and loved the country so much that he put down roots, raised a young family and started his own company called HealthBeacon.

It was no surprise to me how in recent weeks Joyce’s machine, the device he dragged from plane to train and through snowy streets, secured clearance from the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for its technology – a status much sought-after by medtech players across the world.

HealthBeacon’s Smart Sharps System helps patients adhere to their medication schedule. The digital platform not only ensures that patients keep up with their injectable treatments, but also allows them to dispose of medication in a safe way and keeps carers up to date with the patient’s progress.

Since launching commercially in Europe in 2013, HealthBeacon currently serves thousands of patients across 10 markets in Canada, Europe, the Middle East and South America. Securing FDA clearance sets the stage for an Irish company to sell to a market of hundreds of millions of Americans worth $290bn.

A chemical connection

Jim Joyce standing beside medtech machine

HealthBeacon CEO Jim Joyce with one of the company’s machines. Image: HealthBeacon

Coming to Ireland as an FDI executive, Joyce was mightily impressed with what he saw. So much so that it has paved the way for jobs in Ireland, segued neatly with the experience of another American executive I spoke to recently: Joe Nuzzolese, Edwards Lifesciences’ corporate vice-president for global supply chain.

Nuzzolese told me how his positive experiences as an executive working at Johnson & Johnson made Ireland a no-brainer when it came to selecting a location for a major operation.

Structural heart disease monitoring company Edwards Lifesciences is planning to build a major operation in Ireland’s mid-west by 2020 as part of a major €80m investment. Once the new purpose-built manufacturing facility is fully operational, Edwards expects that it will employ approximately 600 people.

Within days of HealthBeacon securing the coveted FDA clearance status, it emerged that Galway medtech start-up Neurent Medical raised €9.3m to develop a medical technology that allows doctors to treat the nasal condition rhinitis from offices rather than in a surgery.

Neurent Medical was founded by Brian Shields and David Townley and originated from the BioInnovate Ireland programme at NUI Galway. The investment will enable Neurent to hire 25 people as well as push ahead with its plans to achieve pivotal approval from the FDA to sell its product in the US where rhinitis affects up to 40pc of the population.

Edwards Lifesciences’ Joe Nuzzolese: ‘Be ready for Industry 4.0’

Joe Nuzzolese, Edwards Lifesciences’ corporate vice-president for global supply chain. Image: Don Moloney/Press 22

These three story arcs alone indicate that Ireland has a golden opportunity to sidestep centuries of being on the sidelines of various industrial revolutions to march straight to the heart of what is termed Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution.

Ireland, if it joins up its thinking, can play to the strengths of a strong FDI culture, a strong university-to-industry research culture and a new class of young but experienced entrepreneurs who are chomping at the bit to achieve FDA approval and go global.

This week, Cook Medical in association with the IDA, will host a business breakfast in Limerick to discuss this very opportunity.

“We’ve been in Limerick since 1993 and in that time, we have seen the region develop into a vibrant and buzzing European hub for medical technology and innovation,” said Bill Doherty, executive vice-president of Cook Medical EMEA.

Cook Medical is one of the largest privately held global medical technology companies, employing 880 people at its Limerick headquarters. It works closely with physicians to develop technologies that eliminate the need for open surgery. Combining medical devices, biologic materials and cellular therapies, Cook helps healthcare systems deliver better outcomes more efficiently.

“We want to work with the relevant authorities to ensure that we continue to attract new business and innovation to the mid-west,” Doherty said.

Med in Ireland

Pictured: David Townley and Brian Shields. Image: Michael Dillon

David Townley and Brian Shields from Neurent. Image: Michael Dillon

Aside from purely medical devices, Ireland is a life sciences and pharma powerhouse. In 2015, according to IDA figures, pharma exports reached €39bn and 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 FDA to export products to the US.

If you gauge the impression that Ireland has made on both Joyce and Nuzzolese, prompting very different but potent outcomes, plus the raw ambition of companies like Neurent and the desire of Cook Medical’s Bill Doherty to build something fundamental in the regions, something is happening.

That something is the collision of pharma with digital and the explosion of medtech devices. We have the acumen, we have the track record. Now, let’s make Ireland the European Silicon Valley of medtech.

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