Putting the ‘R’ & ‘D’ back into Ireland

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Much like the Irish sport of hurling, conducting R&D in Ireland is something often overlooked – unfairly, as proponents would say. Ireland has always faced a number of intrinsic hurdles in this space, not least the small patient population and more recently, the economic crisis, which forced the Irish healthcare system to focus more on service delivery at the expense of research activity. As the Irish economy recovers, however, the Irish government has unveiled Innovation 2020, a new strategy for Irish science, R&D and innovation, which will more than double expenditures on R&D by 2020.

“Ireland is on a fantastic trajectory in terms of our innovative output and the quality of Irish science.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, Science Foundation Ireland

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is the national foundation for investment in scientific and engineering research. Professor Mark Ferguson highlights Ireland’s lesser-known strengths in this area: “Ireland is on a fantastic trajectory in terms of our innovative output and the quality of Irish science. Looking at the EU Innovation Union Scoreboard, Ireland has advanced from tenth in 2013 to sixth in 2016” as well as moving up two places to 14th in the global rankings for quality of science, moving up two places to 14th this year. “Digging deeper, this year, we were ranked globally second for scientific nanotechnology and chemistry.” Professor Luke O’Neill, arguably Ireland’s most famous scientist, is one of the world’s most cited authorities on immunology.

The knockout? “Ireland is actually the most efficient EU country in terms of innovation output” – and most impressively – “we have achieved all of this with a level of public expenditure on science which is below the EU average.

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Indigenous biotechs often look overseas, however, to maximize their productivity. Inflection Biosciences’ CEO, Darren Cunningham, explains, “As a small biotech, we have sought to extend our impact and capacity by collaborating with clinical research organizations (CROs) as well as research investigators at universities and research centers both within Ireland and globally. For instance, we have partnered with Trinity College Dublin (TCD), which has a recognized expertise in treatment-resistant lung cancer, as well as with National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG). Internationally, our research partners include Thomas Jefferson University, Kolling Institute Sydney, Klinikum Munich University and North Carolina Central University.” He muses, “it is a productive partnership model whereby we supply our innovative treatments to the investigators to explore the potential utility of our molecules in their area of expertise, be it pancreatic, colon or breast cancer. So while our head office may be in Ireland, our aspect is global.”

Barry Heavey, Head of Life Sciences at IDA, has a vision for R&D as well: “On a medium-term horizon, we are considering how to position Ireland more prominently within the clinical research space. We do see great opportunities for Ireland to leapfrog in specific niches like smart or next-generation clinical trials. These involve extensive use of data analytics and technology for patient monitoring – centered on the “Internet of Things” idea, or “internet of patients” if you will. Ireland can become a European hub for the rollout of smart clinical trials, because these are preexisting capabilities in pharma, medtech and all the technology involved: cyber security, social media, data analytics. Dublin and Cork are very strong contenders for companies setting up multilingual, pan-jurisdiction clinical trials.”

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Even before that grand vision materializes, however, some companies have already seen the value in conducting R&D in Ireland. Bayer, for instance, has increased the number of people working in R&D from two to ten in the past few years. One contributing factor is that Bayer operates in three different business areas: pharmaceuticals, crop science/animal health and consumer health. As Iwer Baecker, Country Manager, explains, “In the R&D environment, when you are dealing with early innovation, a lot of processes are quite similar, independent of the intended final user. You can leverage on the knowledge of your databases, workforce and the backup functions like screening across the different modalities. This means that you are more efficient and consequently, you can bring the molecules earlier to market, across these three platforms.”

Already MSD has 29 clinical trials running in Ireland. MSD’s Managing Director (Human Health), Ger Brennan proclaims: “I aim to position MSD proactively at the forefront of the changing pharmaceutical landscape and maintain our leading position as R&D innovators in Ireland” which is why “over the next three years, we anticipate investing around EUR 25 million in clinical trials in Ireland”. Also getting involved is  AbbVie’s General Manager, Todd Manning, who highlights that AbbVie “recently signed their first R&D deals through SFI with University College Cork and Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute worth a total of EUR 10 million”.

Perhaps due to its lower barrier to entries and separate regulatory regime, medical devices have been far quicker on the R&D uptake than their pharma cousins. Half of Ireland’s medtech industry is indigenous and stems from native R&D, but even the giants have established R&D operations in Ireland. As Bill Doherty, MD (Ireland) and EVP (Europe) at Cook Medical, suggests, “It is now more unusual for MedTech companies not to have R&D operations here. This is in part fostered by the proactive and encouraging government policy of R&D tax credits.” Cook Medical themselves has its state-of-the-art R&D Innovation Centre in Limerick, set up in 2013 with an investment of EUR 10 million. Bill describes, “the idea was to create a space where we can bring in university academics, researchers, physicians and engineers to interact, brainstorm, try things out and play with ideas! We wanted to have a space to host this fusion of practical and academic ideas.”

As extra icing on the cake, the Irish government unveiled a Knowledge Development Box scheme to complement their already attractive suite of business-friendly tax policies. Touted as a ‘best-in-class’ tax offering, it applies a tax rate of 6.25 percent to profits arising from patented inventions and copyrighted software that result from R&D activity carried out in Ireland. If things progress accordingly, Ireland is well on its way to becoming the world’s best sandbox for academics, researchers, physicians and engineers to play in!

Writer: Karen Xi

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