Dr Keith O'Neill
The Republic of Ireland has suffered more than most at the hands of the global economic downturn. The nation’s economy, which required a bailout from the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2010, has not yet officially emerged from its latest recession, and it still faces significant challenges in terms of emigration and high levels of unemployment.
In the wake of financial turmoil, the most effective strategy for stimulating growth tends to become a matter of intense political debate. Even so, it seems uncontroversial to suggest that a country should play to its strengths, and Ireland’s life science sector can certainly be viewed as one of its main strengths. Cumulatively, the branches of medical devices, pharma and bio in Ireland employ more than 50,000 people directly and export more than €45bn annually.1
For a small country, we have invested relatively heavily in science and technology over the last decade or so. As a result, we have been successful in bringing in some world-class research teams, many of which are very international. Also, many of our facilities and equipment are absolutely state-of-the-art. We have that perfect storm of high-quality researchers, facilities and equipment, and this has helped us to cultivate world-class strengths in select areas.
Dr Keith O'Neill
Enterprise Ireland is a government organisation tasked with encouraging the development and growth of Irish enterprises within the global market. I spoke to Dr Keith O’Neill, Director of Life Science and Food Research Commercialisation at Enterprise Ireland, to find out more about the strengths of Ireland’s life science sector, and to ask how it can be built upon in the future…Why is effective communication between academia and the private sector so valuable to research and innovation?
I think that there are a number of reasons. Effective links are particularly useful for newer, smaller companies, as at this stage in their development it is neither sensible nor practical for them to put together fully, vertically integrated research and innovation teams. Collaboration offers fantastic opportunities for companies to pull together dream teams; to find the best academic partners to help deliver their projects.
It also allows academic groups to access the most up-to-date information about what is going on in the market, and where their research might be most applicable. It’s a really good way to leverage public investment in research and innovation capability, and to make sure that investment is going into the right areas.What, in your opinion, are some of the unique strengths of the Republic of Ireland’s life science sector?
From my perspective, we have a couple of unique strengths. Ireland’s life science research community is comparatively small, but I think that there are some benefits to being small. It means that companies can find out very quickly who the key players are, and so it is quite accessible when compared with some larger science infrastructures.
Secondly, for a small country, we have invested relatively heavily in science and technology over the last decade or so. As a result, we have been successful in bringing in some world-class research teams, many of which are very international. Also, many of our facilities and equipment are absolutely state-of-the-art. We have that perfect storm of high-quality researchers, facilities and equipment, and this has helped us to cultivate world-class strengths in select areas.
Clearly, we cannot be world leaders in everything, but we have really strong research groups in a number of areas including immunology, neuroscience, materials science and in genetics and genomics. All of this expertise is readily accessible to the private sector and Enterprise Ireland provides a wide range of supports to really facilitate and make the interaction between industry and academia a productive one.How is Enterprise Ireland working to maintain and enhance the high quality of your country’s life science sector?
Enterprise Ireland is funded by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation – as is our sister agency Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). We work hand-in-hand with SFI to coordinate funding for Ireland’s life science sector. Of course, SFI mostly focuses on human capital development, bringing together those high-quality research teams in order to establish research platforms.
Enterprise Ireland, on the other hand, is there to maximise the commercial potential of this research, and to provide the additional resources that are required to make those developments available in the format necessary for industrial development. It is a synergistic arrangement between Enterprise Ireland and SFI. Together, we work to maintain a high-quality research base and ensure that the research community remains as enterprise focused as possible.
A good portion of Enterprise Ireland investment is funnelled into collaborative research between industry and academia. We deal with anything from short-term, small-scale projects that take place over a couple of weeks or months, to fairly large-scale commitments that receive tens of millions of euros in order to support the co-development of platform technologies between industry and academia. We are working hard, not only to close this gap, but also to bring industry and academia to work side-by-side in the same projects.
To what extent could effective life science commercialisation benefit the Irish economy?
Across medical devices, pharma and bio, Ireland's life science sector employs more than 50,000 people directly and exports more than €45bn annually
I think that our life science sector will be hugely important to the revitalisation of Ireland’s economy. We were fortunate over the boom years, and even before that, to have built up a strong base of multinational corporations within this sector. One of the spillover benefits of these corporations is the effect that they have had on our indigenous business community. A lot of the highly trained management personnel from these multinationals have gone on to establish their own enterprises. Whilst many of these companies started out in supply relationships, they have now moved up the innovation-value chain to conduct their own product development. This has to be driven by innovation as the global life science market is so competitive that only the most innovative companies survive.
The whole industry has moved to more of an open, more collaborative model for innovation, and this is a real opportunity for smaller companies. Building strong and effective relationships with the academic community can greatly benefit the flow of innovation through
companies and out
into the market.Would you say that you are making good progress in terms of this revitalisation?
I would say that we are. Obviously, there is a significant amount of uncertainty in the wider, global economy, and that will inevitably affect the pace of Ireland’s recovery, but the life science sector has certainly been more resilient than most. It has returned to growth and it has made up any employment losses suffered back when the recession first hit.So it is now a case of building on that momentum and growing for the future
It is. We need to build and grow, and we’re very well placed in terms of when the wider global economy recovers. We should be able to grow and to build off the back of this recovery.Why do you think that people should choose to invest in Ireland’s scientific research community, over those of other European member states?
Obviously, I am a little bit biased in this respect, but I would say that we certainly have a representation of strong research teams in key areas. Our national research community is very accessible to industry, there is significant support available from the state to facilitate interaction and Ireland has a very enterprise-friendly commercialisation system.
June 2012, we published new national intellectual property guidelines and our objective is to make intellectual property originating from the public research system, as accessible as possible to industry, both domestically and internationally. There are a host of different reasons that make Ireland an attractive option for the enterprise sector and there is an awful lot of support available to encourage effective collaboration.What are your main priorities for the coming year?
Essentially, our priorities haven’t really changed all that much in the last couple of years. As I said, we have invested strongly to create a science and research system infrastructure and to develop the best human capital. Now that this has reached a critical mass, our job is to help the research community to bring their developments to market.
We will therefore have a significant focus this year on supporting spin-out companies. Enterprise Ireland is the largest seed investor in Europe in terms of deal flow, and so spin-outs from third-level research projects remain a high priority for us. However, we also provide one-on-one support for companies in Ireland to help source suitable technologies for licensing.
So, spin-outs, licensing and technologies from the third-level sectors are very important. We currently have a number of large industry-academic collaborative programmes in development in key sectors such as medical technologies, connected health and pharmaceuticals. We are committed to developing these three important areas.So there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic?
Absolutely.Dr Keith O’Neill, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today…1 Life science sector profile