Ireland ‘risks losing’ opportunities in growing biotech sector

More co-working labs needed, says CoderDojo co-founder

More money will be made from biotechnology over the next decade than has been made from any other type of technology over the last 20 years. But Ireland risks losing out on opportunities by not having enough co-working lab spaces.

That's according to Bill Liao, co-founder of the Cork-based RebelBio life sciences accelerator, and the European venture partner for SOSV, the $250 million Seán O'Sullivan-led venture capital firm.

Mr Liao, who also co-founded the not-for-profit CoderDojo programming initiative, said investing in co-working lab spaces was an “easy win” for property developers and an investment that would help boost a thriving biotech community in Ireland.

"We need to cotton on to the fact that biotech start-ups need co-working lab space to bridge the gap from them having been in accelerator programmes to where they can afford to have their own offices. I was just in Riga and there are more co-working spaces there than in Dublin and that needs to change," Mr Liao told The Irish Times on the fringes of the Slush tech conference in Helsinki.


Calling on IDA Ireland and the wider VC community to play an active role in promoting biotech start-ups locally, Mr Liao, who lives in west Cork, said the sector had not been as well supported as it might be.


“People have an outdated view of biotech. They don’t realise that you no longer need the full resources of the Mayo Clinic to develop a product. You take a company like Perfect Day, which came through the first cohort at RebelBio. It is working on shipping a super-complex product for human consumption in under four years,” he said.

SOSV, which Mr Liao said is near to closing its fourth $200 million seed fund, was established by former Dragons' Den star and MapInfo co-founder Seán O'Sullivan in 1993. It has funded more than 500 start-ups since it was set up and is currently funding more than 150 firms a year through its accelerators, which cover areas such as hardware, software biology, food, robotics, medical devices, transportation and green energy.

The firm recently withdrew plans to run a second annual instalment of its RebelBio accelerator in Cork, in favour of having it in London. It also stepped back from establishing a European version of Food-X, another one of it accelerator programmes, in Cork.

Mr Liao said a lack of support from limited partners was the key reason why SOSV had pared back its activities in Ireland.

“We wanted to build a co-working lab space in Ireland and to support between 35 and 45 biotech start-ups a year. Enterprise Ireland has been fantastic and so has the Department of Justice in terms of providing visas and so on but there wasn’t enough backing from other players. On the big investment side it has been a case of crickets chirping in the darkness,” he said.

RebelBio was founded in Cork in 2014 as the world’s first life sciences start-up accelerator. It has been through four instalments to date in the city. The aim of the initiative is to unlock the potential of biology as a technology, de-risk and accelerate scientific innovation , and launch lean start-ups to build the future with biology.

Cow-free milk

Perfect Day (formerly Muufri) made headlines around the world two years ago when it revealed it was developing a synthetic cow-free milk product. It is one of a number of biotech firms to come through the accelerator and make waves around the world. Others include DNA foundry start-up Helixworks, which was named the most innovative company at this year's SXSW event in Austin, Texas.

Many of the companies taking part in RebelBio have retained close links to Cork, with some still based in and around the city.

“The reason why Silicon Valley got so big is because there is a talent ecosystem there. We’ve been trying to develop something similar in Cork. Our rebels are going on to achieve great success across the world,” said Mr Liao.

He indicated that Ireland needs to raise its game in terms of attracting fledging firms, saying there is “tremendous support” for start-ups in the UK,

Mr Liao said CoderDojo, which recently merged with Raspberry PI, continued to go from “strength to strength”. However, he added that there was still plenty of growth possible.

“I want to see CoderDojo in every parish and we’re far from that. There is a GAA club in every one and we want there to be a CoderDojo one too,” he said.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist