Booming biopharma goes from strength to strength

Biopharma employs almost 30,000 in Ireland across a wide range of professions

Biopharma is booming. Capital investment in the sector has topped $8 billion over the last decade, turning Ireland Inc into a thriving biopharma cluster with a constant thirst for talent.

Biopharma covers both chemically synthesised drugs (small molecule manufacturing) and large molecule manufacturing or biologics where therapies are manufactured in living organisms such as plant or animal cells.

Biologics is the new whizz kid within biopharma, and industry analysts expect it to account for one-third of sales by 2023 compared with 22 per cent in 2013. Big names in biologics include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck and Eli Lilly, all of which have plants in Ireland. The cost of a biologics plant is about $500 million. A small molecule facility costs $30-$100 million.

Biologics are super-sophisticated and not without their challenges. They need hugely expensive facilities, are complex to make and not easy to take as they are injected not swallowed. Despite this, they account for an increasing proportion of new medicines and their major earnings potential is accelerating employment in the sector.


In 2015, there were approximately 28,200 people employed in biopharma in Ireland. Some 21,500 were in small molecule production and 6,700 in biologics. That’s going to change.

Forecast growth

A report from the Government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs in the Biopharmacy Industry, published last month, estimates the sector will create 8,500 jobs over the next five years and 5,000 of these will be in biologics manufacturing.

About 1,000 of these positions will be in areas such as warehousing, finance, legal and supply chain. The remainder will be in science, engineering and technology. Of the 800-strong graduate cohort recruited in 2014, for example, 50 per cent came from maths and science, 24 per cent from engineering and 12 per cent from health.

John Milne is training director at the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), which was specifically set up to service the research and training needs of the biopharmaceuticals industry. Its €57 million purpose-built training facility (funded by IDA Ireland) is considered to be at the forefront of training technology.

In 2014, pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb announced a new $1 billion biologics manufacturing plant for Dublin. The facility is the company's first biologics manufacturing plant outside the United States and will employ between 350 and 400 scientists, engineers, bioprocess operators, quality specialists and other professionals when operational in 2018.

Diverse opportunities

"At the moment we are building the spine of the organisation, which means hiring senior people generally with biopharma experience," says Stephen Rose, associate director of talent acquisition. "When the spine is complete, we will build out the teams and that's where the more diverse opportunities lie."

Rose says biopharma recruitment has become so competitive that companies are looking at skills and knowledge transfer from other industries such as fast-moving consumer goods, medical devices, clean rooms and agriculture. “Many employees have degrees but we like to strike a balance and also train people,” he says. “The profile of an employee is as important as their qualifications. We want people who demonstrate the kind of behaviours we want: passion, speed, accountability and innovation.”

Judy Conmey graduated with a science degree in 2015 and decided to look for a job rather than becoming a post-graduate. "I didn't want to be stuck in a research lab and decided I'd like to work in industry, but it wasn't clear how you made the jump," she says.

Conmey was interested in biopharma and applied for a number of jobs. Having drawn a blank, she believes her lack of experience was a factor.

Conmey started the NIBRT Springboard programme last September and is now working as a biotechnician in Cork for US biopharmaceuticals company BioMarin, which specialises in therapies for rare diseases of genetic origin.

“The Springboard course opened doors and I suddenly found myself with three interviews in one week. My work is very ‘hands on’ and I’m really enjoying it,” Conmey says.

Diabetes and oncology

MSD Ireland (formerly Merck Sharp & Dohme) is part of a $40 billion corporation with 68,000 employees worldwide. The company has been in Ireland for 50 years and has invested more than €2.2 billion here in that period. Merck was one of the first to offer statin treatment for cholesterol and it also produces Januvia for diabetes and the oncology drug Keytruda. The company has 2,000 employees in Ireland across six locations. It hit the headlines in 2013 when it shed jobs following its acquisition of Schering-Plough but is now hiring again.

"We are expanding both our biologics and small molecule business and also offer opportunities in HR, finance and languages at our shared business centre," says Liam Murray, HR director. "We spend around $6.7 billion annually on R&D so there is a lot happening. And we have filled 200 roles in Ireland in the last six months.

“We’re not necessarily looking for the ‘finished article’ when we recruit. We have a lot of training resources and are prepared to hire to train. What’s equally important are learning aptitude and collaborative skills,” he says.

Biopharma facts

– Nine of the top-10 global players have a presence in Ireland.

– 18 biologics manufacturing sites are in Ireland in 2015 (up from two in 2003)

– 28,200 people employed

– Exports in 2015 were €30.2 billion.

– Global annual biologics revenues are $168 billion and account for about 20 per cent cent of the global biopharma market.

– Biologics is growing at twice the speed of conventional pharma.

Source: Future Skills Needs of the Biopharma Industry in Ireland.