It may be suffering in hard economic times but Ireland still holds the promise of a four-leaf clover for many big-name medical technology companies that take up office there. Over the past decade, it has become one of Europe’s most dominant countries in the drug and pharmaceutical space, to the extent that Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) says it believes players in the industry account for €44bn of exports each year.

The effort to attract the medical industry to Ireland has been so successful that a service industry also thrives, especially in the area of drug testing, where private companies and universities are getting in on the act – and there is still room to grow.

“We have seen large investments [in Ireland in the past decade],” IDA Ireland senior vice-president for pharmaceuticals and biotechnology Barry O’Dowd says. “All these industries require analytical services. Some do it in-house, but others outsource.”

Ireland’s medical technology market has become so big, according to O’Dowd, that it could now be considered larger than the US’s, and quite possibly the highest concentration of medtech companies outside of America – and all indications are that this success is unlikely to change any time soon.

Currently, a vaccine facility for Merck is under construction. Merck is putting €300m into its first biological facility outside of the US, in County Carlow. Lilly is also spending in Ireland – it has committed €600m to a biotechnology facility in Cork that aims to become Lilly’s centre of excellence for antibody work. Last year, Pfizer completed a development centre for clinical materials in Cork while Genzyme worked on its newly completed half-a-billion dollar biotechnology facility in Waterford.

“Ireland’s medtech market has become so big, says O’Dowd, it could now be considered larger than the US’s.”

Californian bio-pharmaceutical company Gilead has also invested in new facilities in Cork, and Johnson & Johnson has nine different operations in the country.

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Ireland’s four-leaf clovers

So what makes investing in Ireland attractive, when the cost of living is high, the economy is in trouble and, logistically, its location within Europe is not the most central?

Michael Smyth, general manager of life sciences at Transperfect, says what lures many medical companies to Ireland, especially Northern Ireland, are the incentives.

“There are large tax credits available for putting facilities in Belfast,” Smyth says. And then there are those that feed off the larger industry. Support for facilities, right across Ireland, is definitely not lacking.

US company PPD has recently set up an analytical facility that will conduct testing for clinical and commercial programmes spanning all phases of drug development.

It is also establishing a contract research facility in Athlone, including a cGMP analytical testing laboratory with the support of IDA Ireland. Overall, it is committing €14m to the nation’s economy.

Another recent addition to the testing-house fraternity is Lancaster Laboratories, part of Thermo Fisher Scientific. The company is expanding its operation in Waterford following its 2007 acquisition of Irish firm Microchem Labs.

Lancaster Laboratories provides scientific and validation services including pharmaceutical, bio-pharmaceutical, medical device and environmental testing services.

University challenge

The testing culture is also a win for Ireland’s up and coming graduates, with universities taking on a large part of the service industry work.

A number of university research departments have increased profiles to offer testing services to pharmaceutical companies setting up in Ireland. Dublin City University, for example, looks at cancer treatments. National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology lecturer in biological sciences Robert O’Connor says the companies will make good use of the universities’ well-respected professionals.

“A number of university research departments have increased profiles to offer testing services to pharma companies.”

“They might evaluate for toxicity and then they will pass the work on to us to take it forward,” he says. “We have a good range of well-qualified oncologists who are well-known in the field. They are opinion leaders.”

O’Connor says one of the reasons Ireland is a popular place for testing cancer drugs is related to the size of the population. Even though the country only has a population of about four million it has a disproportionately high percentage of cancer cases – in the region of 20,000 to 25,000 new cases each year. “We have a lot of willing people for trials,” he says. “And we can provide the results to a very high standard. We take our laboratory-based research into clinical trials.”

Right across Ireland, other universities are taking a similar approach – most with smaller, more niche testing houses. At Trinity College in Dublin, for example, trialling efforts have been so successful that services are no longer advertised for fear of being overwhelmed by requests.

In most cases, according to professor of chemistry at Trinity College, Dublin, David Grayson, industry can still use university instruments at a cost. “Sometimes the industry just wants the results and sometimes they want us to interpret them. Many companies do not have the specialist equipment or staff, so using us is a good deal for them.”

“They may have an impurity [in one of their products] and they don’t understand what it is or how it got there,” says Grayson. “So they come to us. They give us details of the formula under oath and someone here would look at all the possible permutations that could cause the impurity.” He says the university has successfully carried out three or four of these tests in the past five years.

There is a growing demand for this type of service in Ireland because 11 of the top 13 drug companies now have facilities there, and while “there are a few people that have spun off testing houses of their own they are providing data but not necessarily the interpretation of the results that universities can offer”.