‘Big idea’ that could supersize Ireland’s medtech industry

The Cabinet will assess later this year whether to build the Health Innovation Hub, with the potential to create thousands of jobs

Andrew Murphy, chief executive Slainte Healthcare, announcing new jobs  with Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton and Minister for Health James Reilly. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Andrew Murphy, chief executive Slainte Healthcare, announcing new jobs with Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton and Minister for Health James Reilly. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fri, Feb 7, 2014, 01:30

Big projects always start with a big idea.

The History of the IFSC, a book by Irish Times journalist Fiona Reddan, recounts how Charles Haughey gatecrashed a meeting of officials and finance industry leaders in the 1980s. He told them they were not there to decide if unemployment-ravaged Ireland should build an international financial services centre. That was a given, he said, and they were only to decide how it was to be done.

One of the current Government’s big ideas for significant job creation is to build an IFSC-type testbed centre for medical technology companies, the Health Innovation Hub (HIH). It was listed in Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton’s first Action Plan for Jobs as one of the seven “disruptive” measures that could help drag thousands of people off the dole.

The HIH is a grand collaboration between Bruton, his health counterpart James Reilly, Enterprise Ireland, the Health Service Executive, IDA Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, and an assortment of industry, hospital and academic figures.

So far, so IFSC, except the initiative is being piloted in Cork with a view to establishing a national centre later, or possibly a handful of regional hubs.

The aim is to give medtech companies ready-made access to the Irish health system via the hub to rapidly live-test their products. The big idea is that indigenous companies will use it to develop new products for export, while foreign companies will be attracted to invest near the HIH for the same reason.

The hub’s leaders will this month select the final dozen or so companies that will take part in the last part of its pilot phase, before Bruton and Reilly go back to Cabinet to seek approval and funding to build it.

Six companies, including Sláinte Healthcare and Abtran, took part in the first call of the pilot phase, which ended last year. More than 40 companies applied for the second call for HIH projects.

This proves, its leaders insist, that it is “gaining traction”.

“We want Ireland to become the Silicon Valley for medical technology companies. We want them all to come to this country to research and test their products using the Irish health system,” said Bruton.

“ We have all these industries here – medical devices, technology, pharmaceuticals etc. The idea was to join them all up in the HIH. I don’t want to oversell something that is still being piloted. But when we mention this to industry leaders abroad, they prick up their ears.”

Reilly pointed to the spin-off for the health service: it gets early access to brand new solutions to solve problems such as infection control and electronic prescriptions. “By bringing the healthcare system into close proximity with innovators in industry, we enhance the possibility of developing technologies that will benefit patients,” said the Health Minister.

Two of the most senior figures involved in the hub are Dave Shanahan, the former head of Pfizer in Ireland and a former senior executive at IDA Ireland, and Prof John Higgins, the UCC academic whose “Higgins report” is being used to reshape the hospital service.

Innovative ideas
Shanahan, the early driving force behind the idea, chairs the HIH national implementation body, while Higgins oversees the regional steering group at the demonstrator hub in Cork. Both think it is a game-changer for the medtech industry in Ireland.

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