Health and life sciences set to deliver timely boost to North’s economy

Belfast Briefing: Bio-entrepreneurs can now take smart ideas from the lab to the marketplace

Not wanting to return to work after the Christmas holidays is a pretty common affliction at this time of year. But not being able to go to work because of a debilitating disease is a completely different hardship.

It is an issue that thousands of people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in Northern Ireland are battling with every day. It is estimated that up to half of all people diagnosed with RA lose their jobs within five years.

But one local research team is helping RA suffers fight back against the disease. Derry based Digit-Ease is developing a trail-blazing, high-tech glove which can accurately measure stiffness or lack of movement in human joints.

The glove helps to tailor treatment for patients by identifying problem areas which can then be addressed. In many cases specific exercises can help patients cope better with the impact of RA and stay in employment.


But Digit-Ease are not the only pioneering team of bio-entrepreneurs in Derry who want to make life a little easier for people with chronic and critical conditions. They are one of 12 ambitious start-ups located at the Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre. The centre is a partnership between the Western Health and Social Care Trust, the University of Ulster and Derry City Council based at Altnagelvin Hospital.

The centre aims to help bio-entrepreneurs take award-winning ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Last year, a cutting edge £11.5 million (€14 million) clinical research facility also opened for business at the centre.

Adapting healthcare
The new Northern Ireland Centre for Stratified Medicine, based at Altnagelvin Hospital, intends to focus on personalised medicine approaches to managing chronic diseases – adapting healthcare for specific patients.

Not only will the centre benefit people living throughout Ireland, it also aims to develop new technology and innovations that could help inject fresh impetus into the local economy next year.

According to Minister for Enterprise Arlene Foster, the health and life sciences sector is set to play an “increasingly important part in helping to strengthen” the North’s economy in 2014 and beyond. Ms Foster believes healthcare is one of the key industries “capable of delivering a strong knowledge-based economy”.

She says many local companies are already leading the field in the global health and life sciences sector.These are companies such as Antrim based Randox Laboratories, which last year won an €8 million deal with Mexico's Central de Diagnostica e Industria and Craigavon headquartered Almac, which signed what it described as a "game changing" licensing deal during 2013 with Genomic Health worth an initial $9 million.

The recent £176 million acquisition of Andor Technology, which develops and manufactures high performance digital cameras, by London listed Oxford Instruments also illustrates the strength of key local players.

According to one local established entrepreneur, there is also a strong, emerging stream of talent when it comes to new bio, healthcare and life sciences start-ups.

Hugh Cormican, one of the original founders of Andor Technology, says Northern Ireland can help create the right conditions for bio-entrepreneurs to succeed.

Cormican is one of a team of four who have set up Lisburn-based Cirdan Imaging, which is developing advanced medical imaging techniques which could revolutionise cancer detection. Last year it closed a deal to acquire "the intellectual property and assets" of a division of the US group GE Healthcare IT.

Like Belfast-based PathXL, which is developing pioneering digital pathology technology, Cirdan Imaging has set itself ambitious targets which include local job creation.

It is companies like these and the award-winning ProAx-SiS – which is developing diagnostic tests to help patients with chronic conditions – that could deliver a life-saving boost for the local economy in the not too distant future.

According to Invest NI, the life sciences sector employs more than 4,100 people. World-class research projects – such as those under way at the European Connected Health Campus in Belfast – are helping to establish the North as a globally recognised centre of excellence.

Life-saving products
What is really exciting is the "what-if factor" that the life sciences sector poses in 2014. Local start-ups, such as Jenarron Therapeutics – which has developed a putty-style hydrogel material that can be used to apply drug substances such as anaesthetic to wounds – want to produce potentially life-saving new medical products.

If fledgling entrepreneurs like those behind Jenarron can take their inspirational research from the lab to the shelf and create jobs and secure investment along the way, the outlook for the North’s economy is going to be decidedly healthier.