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R&D in Ireland: The industries forging ahead

What sectors are doing well and what can we learn from them?

When it comes to research and development, Ireland is investing less than the EU average. Photograph: iStock

When it comes to research and development, Ireland is investing less than the EU average. Photograph: iStock

 

When it comes to research and development, Ireland is investing less than the EU average. And yet many sectors are forging ahead with R&D. So who is doing well, why are they doing well and what can we learn from them?

Software

“Measuring R&D intensity as a percentage of sales, there’s no doubt that the ICT industry is forging ahead,” says Gearóid Mooney, divisional manager for R&D at Enterprise Ireland. “Why are they forging ahead? It’s because, by its very nature, the tech industry changes with such rapidity and new opportunities arise so quickly that nobody needs to convince them to spend on R&D; they need to do it to stay in business.”

Ireland is doing well in this sector and the work being carried out in this sector is now a crucial part of our export offering, says Lance O’Brien, head of strategy and international relations at Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority.

Medical devices

“Medical devices is a close second,” says Mooney. “It is very R&D intensive, not just because of the nature of the products but also because of regulatory challenges. These devices have to be extensively tested before being used on or in human beings. This is necessary, but the burden of tests and trials does mean that R&D is integral to the industry.”

CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)-funded centre which brings together researchers from across academia and industry to work on medical devices, is focused on developing innovative smart devices and implants which will benefit patients with cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, neural, soft tissue, renal and urology ailments, as well as respiratory diseases.

Pharma

R&D is the lifeblood of the biopharmaceutical industry and, with big firms like Pfizer, MSD and AbbVie among more than 75 based in Ireland, the need for top-quality STEM graduates who can conduct this research has never been more important.

“Day after day, we see Irish teams making big advances,” says O’Brien. “Much of the innovation and research is happening in the universities, while we know that cancer researchers and other medical researchers are more than pulling their weight.”

The industry has spent more than €10 million on capital investment for new facilities in Ireland, suggesting they’re unlikely to be going anywhere soon. Research clusters can be found in Dublin, Cork, Sligo, Galway, Waterford and Mayo. The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and SFI have provided financial support and training for the sector, with SFI’s work focused on understanding cancer, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases; SFI is also working closely with Pfizer.

Food and ingredients

“While we do have some global giants such as Kerry, the industry as a whole is not as R&D-intensive as their peers in other countries,” says Mooney. “The big exceptions come in the food ingredient end of the business. Kerry are using data analytics in their business. In the main, however, the ready meal of the business is relatively unsophisticated, but things are improving massively. In the last few years, firms in the meat industry have got together and, with co-funding from Enterprise Ireland, developed an R&D centre that they could all leverage off; despite competing against one another, they saw a need to increase sophistication and investment.”

Lance O’Brien of Teagasc points towards other success stories. “Ireland is doing well in terms of agri-food research, especially in relation to functional foods and other foods for health, which is being pioneered by the [SFI-funded] Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre Microbiome in UCC, which is working on the area of gut health, microbiota and the relationship with food. For the beef and dairy industries, pasture is critical so a lot of the work of Teagasc focuses on grass growing and management.”