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A growing life sciences start-up culture

The new generation of Irish life sciences and pharma companies played a significant role in the pandemic fight

When it came to deploying innovation in the war against Covid-19, Ireland was not found wanting. Many of our indigenous biomedical and life sciences companies played crucial roles in the multifaceted fight against the deadly virus.

Yet this was no happy accident. Over the past two decades a framework that allows innovative laboratory research to become a tangible and commercially viable product or service has been painstakingly erected. The result? The creation of a thriving life sciences start-up ecosystem attracting millions in funding and taking the world by storm.

Enterprise Ireland has been at the heart of this. The government agency invests in roughly 30-35 start-ups in the life sciences space each year, says Alan Hobbs, manager of High Potential Start Ups for life sciences and industrial. "If you benchmark Ireland internationally per spend on R&D we have a much higher return in terms of spin-out companies than other countries," he tells The Irish Times. "A really interesting ecosystem has evolved here over the past 15 years."

Under the auspices of Knowledge Transfer Ireland, Enterprise Ireland now funds and co-ordinates staff members in each university’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO), whose job it is to mine the research carried out there and see what could be commercialised.

Another of their most successful programmes is BioInnovate, a specialist medical device innovation programme affiliated with the Stanford BioDesign programme. The 10-month, full-time programme allows people from medical, engineering, business and technical backgrounds to discover unmet clinical needs by observing a clinical environment.

“If there is something that they identify in that nine-month period that warrants further investigation they can then apply to us for commercialisation funding,” Hobbs says, adding that about four or five start-ups will be created each year as a result of the programme.

Growth area

Hobbs believes that connected health and digital health is the next big growth area within life sciences. One of the silver linings of the cloud of Covid over the last two years is that the rate of adoption of these technologies has massively accelerated within national health systems such as the HSE.

Enterprise Ireland now works closely with the Digital Transformation Unit in the HSE, and Hobbs says “years of groundwork” are now coming to fruition as the appetite for services such as remote monitoring grows.

“There are over 20 companies now working with the HSE, and there are so many fantastic examples of young Irish innovation that have helped the HSE get people out of the hospitals and back to the community.”

And “young” is not necessarily a prerequisite. Hobbs says they are now seeing experienced professionals, particularly within the medical devices area, throw themselves into entrepreneurship at a later stage in their career.

“They are coming across ideas that they would like to pursue and they may not, for whatever reason, fit with the road map of the company they work for. This becomes an opportunity to leave and set up a new business, and people like ourselves offer initial seed investment. We might spin it into a college for a couple of years and we have multiple success stories of people who have done that.”

He namechecks Eamon Brady, who sold stroke care company Neuravi to Johnson and Johnson in 2017 and is now finding similar success with WhiteSwell, which is pioneering the novel treatment of acute decompensated heart failure.

But while the life sciences and medtech innovation space is flourishing, homegrown pharma companies tend to be that bit tricker, admits Hobbs. “We have some really good Irish pharma companies but to develop a pharmaceutical company takes so much time and costs a lot of money that they are only emerging now,” he says.

New ventures

Simon Factor is senior manager of new ventures with Nova UCD, the university's innovation hub. He says that while "start-ups is where all the exciting stuff happens" it is not typically a straightforward path to commercial success when it comes to innovation in the life sciences.

“We have been supported very generously in recent years by Enterprise Ireland, who have reached into the university and tried to pull the research outputs into translational research and then commercialise it as products and companies,” he says.

“Then it hits the market and that’s where it begins to get tricky in life science compared with other sectors because of the regulatory environment that these companies we are trying to create exist in and the high cost of meeting those regulatory requirements. Further to that the cost of trialling therapeutics and technology to get it through the approval process, it’s so high that it’s very different to what the typical start-up scene is used to.”

Digital health tends to lend itself better to the model of early-stage investment, he says.

“Med tech has a better network of investors. With diagnostics and therapeutics, the road is so much longer and the quantum of investment needed to get something to market is so much higher that there is a significant gap there” says Factor.

“We are in a great ecosystem in Ireland, there is no doubt about it, but there is more to be done to bridge that gap. A lot of what we are trying to do in Nova is to help shed a light on what that journey is going to look like and bring in the different resources that are needed in order to convince investors.”

Nova UCD runs commercialisation “boot camps” where they bring in scientists and researchers and help them to think about innovation in the context of market needs.

“They may have an idea for something but what we are trying to help them understand is what problem is that solving, and for whom, and how big is that problem. If they can figure that out then it’s a good basis to go looking for the translational research grants that we would then use to do a prototyping or an MVP - minimum viable product.”

Networking

Factor adds that the tricky part is then to get others involved to help shape what that product is as early as possible. At that stage Nova UCD takes a very active role in networking these currently research and scientific-led teams with people who have got commercial experience, market experience and connections. “These are typically people who have already built a company and sold it,” he explains. “Sometimes they will even join the team as a commercial partner when they see the potential of the product.”

The university typically incubates a project for 18 months to two years, he adds. “Then it’s time to spin it out and actually set up a company, and we promote it to a network of national and international venture capital funds.”

Factor cites as an example the Atlantic Bridge Fund, a pot of €80 million which invests in university start-ups across Ireland – albeit not just in life sciences.

These methods have worked; when the last five years are compared to the previous five years Nova UCD increased the number of companies they had spun out by 100 per cent and tripled the amount of seed stage investment into those companies.

Clinicians engaged in research have used their clinical knowledge and patient experience to establish companies to address unmet medical needs. For example, the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in University College Cork was founded in 2003 by consultant gastroenterologist Prof Fergus Shanahan. Now known as the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, it has since generated four different spin-outs and more are in the pipeline. One of these, PrecisionBiotics, makes the popular over-the-counter probiotic supplement Alflorex and was acquired by the Danish group Novozymes for €80 million in 2020.

Momentum

"The success of this generated a lot of interest in entrepreneurship within the APC and we have been trying to harness that momentum," says Dr Brendan Curran, general manager of the centre.

Yet Curran believes that the whole area of food science – one he says has “massive potential” – remains somewhat under the radar.

“There is a good ecosystem there for pharma-oriented and ICT diagnostics spin-outs with the dots joined up, accelerator programmes and funding from EI. It’s still a little underdeveloped in the food space, which is something we are trying to change. The number of food spin-outs is still low overall. There are maybe a couple of blind spots where an ecosystem is needed to drive it. The research is there.”

Start up, tune in and spin out….

BioSimulytics is a UCD spin-out headquartered at Nova UCD. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to digitise key steps in how new drug molecules are designed and developed, and last year the company secured €595,000 in initial seed funding from a number of strategic angel investors and Enterprise Ireland.

ONK Therapeutics is a NUI Galway spin-out working on developing an off-the-shelf natural killer-cells therapy platform targeting cancers. Established by consultant haematologist Prof Michael O'Dwyer, it recently raised $21 million (€18.5m) in Series A funding.

Inflazome, a Trinity College Dublin sprint out (helmed by Covid guru Luke O'Neill), was sold to the Swiss pharma giant Roche for €380 million in 2020.

SeqBiome, a spin-out from APC Microbiome Ireland, UCC and Teagasc, was selected last year as one of 10 start-ups globally to partake in the prestigious PepsiCo Greenhouse Accelerator programme. SeqBiome, which provides high-quality and interactive sequencing and microbiome analysis to industry and academia, already had major clients such as Nestle.

EpiCapture is a life sciences start-up from the UCD school of biological science. It is developing a novel urine DNA test for aggressive prostate cancer and was the overall winner of the 2020 UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator Programme.