Necessity may be the mother of invention but adversity is its aunt. In a year in which human health faced challenges unprecedented in scale and speed (the Black Death didn’t travel by aircraft), the medtech sector swung into action to respond. Few places have a stronger record on that front than Ireland.
A global survey ranked Ireland as among the top countries in the world for producing innovative solutions to the pandemic.
The finding, from StartupBlink, a Swiss-Israeli producer of global start-up data, in association with the UN-backed Health Innovation Index, placed Ireland as having the sixth most innovative response to the virus.
It's an impressive performance when you consider Ireland's small population but not surprising when you hear that within weeks of the World Health Organisation declaring the pandemic in March, more than 100 Enterprise Ireland client companies had responded with innovative solutions.
Some have been truly groundbreaking, such as the revolutionary coatings technology developed by Irish firm Kastus.
It has developed and patented an antimicrobial and antiviral coating technology that is already being built in as standard to a range of shared-screen devices, such as those used at airport ticketing terminals or handheld inventory management devices. It can also be used on ceramic tiles in a range of buildings, including hospitals and nursing homes, to help reduce the transmission of certain infectious diseases.
Irish medtech innovator Aerogen had already pioneered new ways to help people in respiratory distress through the use of aerosol drug delivery technology.
Unlike conventional nebulisers, Aerogen has an inline circuit design, which means the ventilation circuit does not need to be broken for drug delivery, making it particularly helpful for patients infected with Covid-19.
Irish company Novaerus helped to "close the infection loop" of hands, surfaces and air by using a patented technology that kills airborne viruses by sucking air from a room and passing it through patented plasma coils which destroy them, reducing the risk of cross-infection.
This has been a year of enormous innovation at Wicklow-based Oxygen Care, a supplier of medical equipment to hospitals, medical facilities and community care centres. The family-owned business, which has offices in Wicklow and Belfast, introduced a particularly compelling innovation this year.
Linda Ryan, the firm's head of sales, says: "We were approached by a supplier called Aerobiotix to consider a partnership to distribute their Illuvia HUAIRS air decontamination unit. We were already aware of an increasing need for a premium high-quality product in the area of 'ultraclean' air to lower the risk of viral transmission in healthcare settings and surgical site infections. We were immediately impressed by the technology of the unit, which is strongly supported by strong clinical evidence."
“Emerging evidence highlighted the risk of Covid-19 transmitting via air particles. With the Illuvia, we had a mobile solution that can help keep frontline workers and patients safe in the hospital environment, particularly where there were aerosol-generating procedures taking place,” she says.
The need for ultra-clean air has never been greater in medical settings.
Maurice Moran, the company’s product specialist, says: “With the aid of a handheld particle analyser we are able to demonstrate a significant reduction in airborne particles in clinical settings with the Illuvia in use. Areas of interest within the hospital include ICUs, theatre, maternity departments, assessment units, Covid screening areas, respiratory labs and care of the elderly.”
International medtech hub
Ireland’s strong performance in medtech innovation is supported by its growing status as an international medtech hub.
Colin Kavanagh, head of life sciences at Arthur Cox, says: “Continuous government support for FDI in the medtech sector over many years has encouraged many of the world’s top medtech businesses to set up significant operations in Ireland.
“Irish engineers and entrepreneurs have learned a huge amount from these companies and have used that knowledge and experience to set up and grow many successful Irish medtech businesses. I think the clustering of the sector in places like Galway and Limerick has helped foster this development and cross-pollination.”
The law firm advises on everything from company incorporation through to the legal and regulatory aspects of product development, IP protection and compliance.
"Government agencies such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland have supported industries and the talent working within them. Further Government support in the form of a competitive corporate tax rate, a knowledge development box regime, a research and development tax credit and an extensive tax treaty network have helped, as has strong clinical research facilities and an experienced regulator," says Kavanagh.
Accountant Grant Thornton has deep experience supporting the sector. Tax partner Peter Vale says: “We understand the industry’s challenges and are currently supporting medtech companies on a diverse range of engagements from project managing large-scale global and strategic programmes to supporting acquisitions and sale mandates to the provision of outsourced business services.”
The Irish tax code encourages medtech innovation. “There are significant tax supports for R&D activities, including a valuable tax credit for expenditure on R&D and a low tax rate of 6.25 per cent, known as the Knowledge Development Box, on profits derived from certain R&D activities carried on in Ireland. Tax allowances are also available for expenditure on intellectual property brought into Ireland. Taken together, this suite of tax incentives makes Ireland a compelling location for medtech companies,” he explains.
The fact that the needs of industry, government and education are aligned in respect of medtech helps too. “The industry has strong links with key higher education institute facilities supporting RD&I and public/private collaboration,” he says.
All these factors have fed into what has been a highly innovative response to the challenges of 2020.
“Recent innovations in Ireland include the developing of rapid Covid-19 testing kits which can provide results in 20 minutes. This has the potential to limit the need or severity of lockdowns pre-vaccine and is a fantastic example of the innovation that is present in the Irish medtech sector,” says Vale.
“Ireland’s vibrant medtech cluster of established companies, start-ups and academic programmes make us a world-class leader for cutting-edge innovation.”