If there is one thing Covid-19 has taught businesses it is to expect the unexpected and always be ready to pivot. Many companies involved in the areas of research and development (R&D) have done just that, with much of the effort and funding that would have gone towards other important programmes or trials now being flooded into research for a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19.
Dublin-based life science company Genuity Science has seen a major shift in focus of R&D, with much funding and manpower diverted solely to the Covid effort.
Anne Jones, managing director of Genuity Science (Ireland) Ltd, says: "Globally many clinical trials in other areas have been suspended, and we've seen many labs, particularly those in an academic setting, currently closed due to restrictions stemming from the pandemic."
This is echoed by Ken Hardy of KPMG, who says companies are continuing only essential R&D activities and pausing non-essential activities, including early-stage activities, which could impact on the future pipeline of these companies
In the med-tech sector, for example, where products are used for elective surgery, there has been a drop in demand.
Because of the diversion of resources towards the discovery of a vaccine or medicines for Covid-19, Matt Moran, director of biopharma at Ibec, says it has been business as usual for members and he is seeing some interesting collaborations taking place globally right now because of it.
"That will impact us down the road in terms of manufacturing these products – if they discover them, and hopefully they will, they could be made in Ireland. There are a couple of companies looking at this, for example APC, who have formed a partnership with Australian-based company Vaxine to try to discover a vaccine for Covid-19."
The work around Covid-19 has demonstrated how research can be fast-tracked when there is a sense of urgency and commitment to finding answers, says Jones.
“We’ve seen collaborations at a scale and across geographies which has rarely been seen before. At Genuity Science, in collaboration with Illumina, we are working to support acceleration of both host and patient Covid-19 research by providing, gratis, sequencing and analysis of samples from Irish research,” she adds.
However, its core operations, the research studies Genuity Science usually run in conjunction with major hospitals around the country, slowed with the onset of coronavirus.
“This gave us the capacity to leverage our advanced genomics laboratory in Dublin to support the HSE in 200,000 Covid-19 tests from March through early June. This allowed us to keep our lab fully and continuously operational while at the same time helping the country when the virus was at its peak. It also tested our mettle to pivot from our normal health research to support the testing at a massive scale in just a matter of weeks,” she adds.
Moran says the companies he represents have been concentrating on keeping plants operational.
“We have been taking on board the various guidelines and altering manufacturing to take account of those. It’s not a huge surprise in pharmaceuticals that we operate to stringent measures anyway, including the use of garb and behaving in a different way is not alien.
“Plants have had to make changes, for example putting in signposting or Perspex, and they have had to change up ancillary services; for example changes to the canteen in order to comply with guidelines and they have done that successfully enough. It’s a different environment in this industry, very controlled, with protective measures already in place,” Moran says.
With the exception of its laboratory scientists, the majority of Genuity Science’s global team have been working from home since mid-March, but Jones has seen this as an opportunity.
“We’ve found that this period has presented a unique opportunity for relationship-building as many of the people with whom we have key relationships or were establishing relationships with were also working from home and more available than they might otherwise have been.
“In spite of disruption to our normal working environment we were not only able to implement a significant corporate restructure and rebrand but also advance several contracts, including a significant collaboration agreement with a major research institution in the US,” she says.
Working from home
Meanwhile, R&D is continuing at pace in sectors such as software and technology but in the short to medium term.
Covid-19 “return to work” restrictions mean that a portion of R&D personnel in these sectors spent time working from home, thereby reducing the allowable numbers on site in line with social distancing.
“While many companies, particularly in the tech sector, can continue R&D remotely, in others there may be a contraction in R&D activity during 2020 and beyond. In the software sector we have seen the acceleration of digitisation projects. Covid-19 may be the catalyst to drive companies towards a digital platform that can enable more R&D activity to be performed on a remote basis,” says Ken Hardy.
To remain competitive, cost control and cost reduction projects are likely to be in focus for the next while. “We will likely see companies undertake R&D projects in these areas to seek productivity improvements, waste minimisation and automation,” he says.
Jones says as Covid-19 restrictions ease they are “keen to return to normal” but says the skills of agility, flexibility and greater collaboration which they have honed over the last few months will help her own company and the R&D industry in general maintain a competitive edge into the future.