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Buoyant life sciences sector on crest of a wave

Posted on over 3 years ago by Laurentina Kennedy

Innovation Rd (002)

Buoyant life sciences sector on crest of a wave

Life sciences are an anchor for the economy in tough times;  med-tech alone
employs 27,000 people in c.400 companies, half of these in Irish-owned
Buoyant life sciences sector on crest of a wave

Janssen Sciences is investing €300m expanding its Ringaskiddy facility, bringing numbers employed there to around 700. The main products that to be manufactured at the new facility are immunology and oncology treatment products.

Ireland has served as a magnet for investment on the part of life sciences companies over recent decades. The sector is now a major anchor for the economy in difficult times with the sector accounting for over half of all Irish goods exports by value.

In 2018, total pharma exports reached €73 billion while in 2017, €1.8 billion was invested in research and development, according to the representative group Biopharma Chem Ireland.

A separate report by recruitment firm, Collins McNicholas, estimates that total medical and pharma exports rose from just under €70bn to €80bn between 2018 and 2019.

Much of the expansion in the sector has been in the field of biologics. Whereas in 2003, there were just two biologics manufacturing sites in the country, there are now over twenty. According to the report’s author, Michelle Murphy, biologics manufacture involves a much more complex process than those required in traditional pharmaceuticals production.

“A biologic is manufactured in a living system – such as bacteria, yeast, plant, or animal cells. There is greater risk of contamination in the manufacturing process.”

 There is a lot to play for. The global biologics market is currently achieving an annual turnover of just over $280bn. This is set to rise to $400 billion by 2025.

The National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), which offers excellent training across a series of highly skilled roles.

The National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), which offers excellent training across a series of highly skilled roles.

According to Ryan Murphy of Enterprise Ireland, the med-tech sector alone employs 27,000 working in around 400 companies, one half of which are Irish-owned SMEs. 

Writing in EI’s ‘Industry Bulletin’, last April, his colleague, Deirdre Glenn, EI’s Head of Life Sciences, pointed out that the Covid 19 crisis was leading to “an acceleration in collaboration.” 

However, “severe challenges” were being experienced in the area of worker safety.

This has led to split shifts and greater reliance on remote working.

The pandemic also has implications for cash flow with increases in the cost of freight, difficulties in sourcing raw materials and other supply chain issues.

But demand in key areas has risen. Companies such as Medtronic were called on to meet the call for ventilators, nebulisers and other critical devices. 

New Covid-19 tests are in development while there is rising need for digital, health and software solutions aimed at facilitating remote monitoring and patient self-management.

This has happened at a time when many healthcare facilities have been rendered less accessible by the pandemic.

The overall message is one of resilience in a sector where deep roots have been put down in this country by investors. Firms such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have links in this country going back several decades. Investments in plant and staff are there for the long haul.

Michael Lohan is Head of Life Sciences at the IDA. An engineer by background, he joined the Authority, 18 years ago, after a career in industry.

“The evolution in the sector has been dramatic and incredible.” The manufacture of basic product has given away to something that is far more sophisticated.

“The sector is capital intensive. In any year, capital spend is between one and a half and €2bn, sometimes higher.” 

Upbeat for 2021: Michael Lohan, IDA Ireland, leader of a global team across life sciences, engineering and industrial technology. 

Upbeat for 2021: Michael Lohan, IDA Ireland, leader of a global team across life sciences, engineering and industrial technology.

The IDA Chief Executive, Martin Shanahan, has acknowledged that site visits to Ireland have fallen in the wake of the pandemic. 

However, Michael Lohan believes that this will be a case of investments being postponed rather than cancelled. He does accept, however, that global competition for big FDI projects is now fierce.

However, FDI activity has continued. Michael singles out the recent announcements of a €300m investment by Pfizer creating three hundred direct jobs and a similar scale investment by Regeneron in Limerick creating four hundred posts.

The skills base is evolving with demand in particular for engineers, researchers, & quality control. This is being driven by the advent of personalised medicines and new cell and gene based therapies.

As recruiter, Michelle Murphy, observes, “the biopharma industry is highly regulated”. The emphasis is on stringent cleaning and safety.

“The demand is for experienced professionals. We advise junior professionals to stay in their first role for a few years to home their skills. There are diverse roles available in science, engineering, technology, business. “ 

“Graduate work readiness is a priority.”

 With this in mind, Michelle suggests that there is increased focus on work placements of six to nine months’ duration and that life science companies increase the scale of their graduate entry programmes.

The need to align education and skills provision with specific industry needs has also been highlighted by John Milner, Director of Training at NIBRT – the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research Training.

The body currently has in place 23 online courses which in Michelle’s view are “excellent tools for upskilling professionals in key areas of biopharma.” 

Matt Moran, Director of the business group, Biopharma Chem Ireland concurs.

“We are engaging closely with the IDA and NIBRT.” This is necessary because of the breakneck pace of change due to the convergence of technology and healthcare and the advent of digital based activity.

Biopharma Chem Ireland has highlighted some of the challenges posed by the pandemic to the sector.

The biopharma and chemical sectors have stayed “essentially operational” through the crisis, with most sites employing remote working for around half their workforce. However, the group has pointed to a squeeze on the availability of talent on account of the reduced workforce mobility.

With this in mind, it has suggested that additional supports for training and development be provided through initiatives such as the Bio Pharma Chem skillnet and laboratory apprenticeship programmes.

Says Matt: “Talent availability is always a challenge as the industry grows and faces changes. New skill sets are needed.” 

With this in mind, it is worth pointing to a sample of some of the jobs on offer as of November 2020 with leading recruitment companies. 

These include the following:

  • Bio analytical lab support assistant.
  • Technical services specialist in cell culture. Applications from Ireland only accepted due to Covid 19 restrictions.
  • Microbiology analyst.
  • Quality assurance validation specialist.
  • CAD ( computer aided design ) technician.
  • Automation engineer.

Sanofi, just one of the many life sciences companies expanding in Ireland. 

Sanofi, just one of the many life sciences companies expanding in Ireland.

The companies doing the hiring are spread across the country from Eurofins in Dunboyne, Co Meath to Sanofi and Teva in Waterford and GPC in Dublin.

Pfizer alone is seeking analysts, technicians, engineers, scientists, technologists, quality specialists, data analysts and chemists.

Diligent Corp, a corporate governance specialist, has established its new European hub in Galway.

Lets Get Checked’ is providing fifty new positions in home health testing as its rolls out its Covid testing service.

Data scientists are in particular demand – key skills here include data visualisation, data management and governance.

Michael Lohan also points to the expansion in contract manufacturing, with the Chinese company, Wu Xi, selecting Dundalk for its first major investment outside China. Thermo Fisher, another leading CDMO company, is also expanding here.

Wu Xi is to invest $240m in a new vaccines facility at its biologics campus in Dundalk.

Among the key job announcements for 2018 to 2020 are the following:

A €160m investment by Allergan in Westport; a €113m  expansion by Abbvie in Sligo. An €86m expansion by Chanelle in Loughrea to create 350 jobs over five years.

Over ten thousand are employed in Co Cork alone by pharma and medical devices companies. Best known perhaps is Eli Lilly in Kinsale which manufactures active ingredients. Six hundred work in a separate shared services site on Little Island.

Janssen Sciences is investing €300m in Ringaskiddy bringing numbers employed there to around 700.

Waterford has emerged as another leading biopharma hub in recent years bringing jobs to a region which suffered harsh blows a decade ago.

In the Midlands, Athlone benefited for many years from the presence of Elan Corporation.

There are major investments in Abbott in Longford employing over 650 people.

Dr Sinéad B Bleiel of AnaBio Technologies, an irish life sciences success story. 

Dr Sinéad B Bleiel of AnaBio Technologies, an irish life sciences success story.

Alexion, based in Athlone, has invested more than €600m in the region since 2014. It recently announced a one hundred million investment in its biologics facility.

While a favourable corporation tax regime has been an important factor in the long term success of the life sciences sector in Ireland, the acquisition and development of talent is if anything even more critical given the high levels of embedded capital in the life sciences business.

The whole industry, however, is changing rapidly and the response of institutions here will be critical.

While Ireland ranks highly in the IMD World Competitiveness Report in terms of its ability to attract talent to the sector, much work remains to be done.

A high cost of living is a deterrent, particularly in Dublin, while it is accepted that more must be done to attract students into science courses at Third level so as to ensure that the pipeline of talent continues to flow and ensure that the sector continues to thrive..

In a separate article, I will examine the steps being taken by the authorities and the sector itself to build on the success enjoyed to date.