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Rise of medtech in Ireland has made State a global hub for the sector

The Irish medtech sector employs 40,000 people but maintaining our global reputation will require action in a number of areas

Eighty per cent of stents used worldwide are manufactured here

As an established global hub for medtech, Ireland has become something of a magnet for major multinationals in this space – think Medtronic, Boston Scientific and Abbott. These are just some of medtech giants with significant operations in Ireland but there are also hundreds of SMEs located here, all working towards the goal of making life-improving – and life-saving – modern medical technologies.

And the numbers speak for themselves. Eighty per cent of stents used worldwide are manufactured here; 50 per cent of ventilators used in acute hospitals are made in Ireland; and 25 per cent of injectable devices used by diabetes patients and others are produced here.

The Irish medtech sector currently comprises about 450 companies – four out of five of them SMEs – and employs 40,000 people. But experts say maintaining our global reputation in this space will require action in a number of areas including skills and training, rules governing investments, digitalisation and innovation supports.

Ireland is a “globally renowned hub for medtech”, says Colin Kavanagh, partner and head of life sciences with Arthur Cox. Unlike pharma and biotech, he notes, many medtech businesses here are Irish owned and operated and many are SMEs. “As the links grow between these businesses and our indigenous software industry into digital health there are opportunities for Ireland to not only maintain its leading role as a hub for international medtech production but also for Irish businesses to innovate and become global leaders themselves.”


But when it comes to grasping opportunity in the medtech space, Ireland has never been found wanting. Prof James McLaughlin is director of the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre (NIBEC) at Ulster University and he admits he is “old enough to remember when this all began”. NIBEC was the first stand-alone research centre in Ireland, established in 1987. “We were small, but we were a catalyst in identifying medtech and bioengineering as a skill base and an area that needed devoted research – we knew we had the science to sustain it but we knew we needed the innovation and subsequent impact on society to sustain it, and that has all happened.”

McLaughlin cites the arrival of Intel on Irish shores in 1989 as the foundation stone of Ireland’s solid technology manufacturing reputation, and when companies such as Medtronic and Boston Scientific followed – “absolute linchpins of the sector” – our fate was sealed.

“Yet the thought that it wouldn’t sustain itself as it was merely manufacturing but the R&D base eventually followed, although it took several years to get it substantiated,” McLaughlin explains. More medtech behemoths such as Stryker and Abbott soon came along and the professor notes that while all had subtle differences in their respective skills base, “the outflow of staff from these huge companies has a huge confidence factor when you start to apply that to the wider medtech industry”.

It was almost unsurprising, then, given these early votes of confidence, that Ireland’s booming medtech sector followed a trajectory that mirrored the massive global expansion of the medtech market. Sinead Keogh is director of the Ibec medtech and engineering sector, which includes the Irish Medtech Association. “The medtech ecosystem is unique in Ireland within the life sciences ecosystem. The ecosystem is made up of a really strong and growing indigenous base as well as a world-class FDI presence,” she says.

Keogh says that following the influx of global firms to Ireland in the 1990s, the sector continued to steadily grow. “By 2000, 13 of the world’s top 20 healthcare companies had plants in Ireland and the medical devices sector employed 7.5 per cent of Ireland’s manufacturing industry workforce. The medical devices sector was made up of 75 companies in total; now there are 450 companies employing 45,000 people, with global exports of €13 billion.” This makes Ireland the largest employer of medtech professionals in Europe per capita.

“Our highly skilled workforce has a proven track record of delivery and our education system and course offerings at masters and PhD level can also evolve to attract international talent to make Ireland a destination of choice for international students with fledgling medtech careers,” Keogh says.

And the ongoing investments are proof of this. “Ireland has seen some really exciting investments recently,” says Keogh. Abbott Ireland has made a landmark investment of $450 million in a greenfield site in Kilkenny, which will add a further 1,000 value-added jobs, on top of the 5,000 already employed by the company here. In August, Stryker opened its new additive manufacturing facility in Cork, the largest of its kind globally. The new 156,000sq ft 3D printing facility will produce specialised medical devices such as implants to treat bone-related conditions and will create 600 high-tech jobs. Meanwhile, Boston Scientific recently unveiled a new €100 million expansion and 300 jobs at its operations in Galway.

According to McLaughlin, it is estimated that the global medtech market will be worth in the region of $600 billion by 2026. This means that Ireland must continue to “rapidly innovate medtech” via academia/industry/health service collaboration. McLaughlin sees the digitisation of diagnostics as a critical element of that. The recent major investment in Northern Ireland in the Centre for Digital Healthcare Technology will see a “living labs” structure; widely viewed as a catalyst for innovation, this allows for research to be done adjacent to the clinician, so that there is immediate feedback. Other countries have similar platforms whereby innovation is “seamlessly integrated” with the hospital system, says McLaughlin. “We have to be able to do that better with less red tape and also come up with a method for compensating our clinicians for their time.” The heightened use of electronic care records in the Irish healthcare system has made many examples of medtech increasingly useful and eventually indispensable, McLaughlin says. “Hospitals are already overstretched, so it is essential that government finds a way to enhance the innovation pathways.”

Incidentally, the Health Service Executive’s 2022 national service plan included an ICT capital allocation of €95 million, a figure that has been growing year on year, says Aoife O’Sullivan, head of network development and innovation at Skillnet Ireland. “Technology is an increasingly important part of the delivery and experience of healthcare internationally. Ireland’s long-standing relationship with FDI and multinationals, our reputation as a premium digital hub across multiple sectors and our highly skilled workforce will undoubtedly put the country in a strong position to take advantage of the opportunities available.”

Skillnet Ireland and its networks recently launched a new master’s degree in digitalisation of manufacturing, a first of-its-kind master’s-level programme to help businesses in Ireland embrace Industry 4.0. “The master’s degree, developed by the Irish Medtech Skillnet with Limerick Institute of Technology, aims to provide businesses with the insight to get ahead of international trends, adopt new technologies and ensure that people working within the sector here are equipped for the jobs of the future. These ‘triple helix’ collaborations can drive innovation within the sector and support economic development,” says O’Sullivan.

Keogh attributes Ireland’s stellar reputation in medtech to two main drivers – our established track record coupled with our innovation mindset. “Government incentives, such as the R&D tax credit, have been instrumental in driving innovation here, with medtech one of the largest users of the credit, not surprising as the sector is characterised by a constant flow of innovation,” she says.

She echoes McLaughlin and O’Sullivan, saying that collaboration will be the cornerstone of this continued success. “Medtech differs from other sectors in Ireland in that it is particularly collaborative. It grew to become the hub it is today because of the ability of strategic thinkers to see beyond their own plant.”

Continued encouragement and support for start-up and spin-out companies is crucial, however. “Over the years engineers and managers from multinational firms established their own start-ups, with many becoming serial entrepreneurs and investors in their own right. In more recent years, especially, we’ve seen a significant number of university spin-outs supported by government funding through a number of financial instruments, including the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund.” The fund is fuelling more collaborative research across the ecosystem, says Keogh, noting that 11 disruptive technologies projects across health and wellbeing were recently funded through the fund to the tune of €40 million.

“Continued foreign direct investment and indigenous investment in R&D centres will ensure Ireland is positioned to develop and equipped to deliver with the latest thinking and skills, while operational excellence, advanced manufacturing technologies and innovation will ensure market competitiveness,” she adds.

McLaughlin notes that Ireland’s success in driving medtech innovation brings benefits at all levels. “At the end of the day, medtech is about improving the cost of healthcare, making it more cost-effective and also improving health and safety for patients. What that translates into is better care for elderly, better care for those that are diagnosed with disease and higher-quality diagnostics for everyone.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times