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Irish Independent

Ireland Aiming To Become A Biotech Hub By Uniting Academic And Business Brains

September 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Independent Newspapers Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.

THE IDA has set itself a goal of attracting 4bn worth of biotech investments into Ireland by 2007.

In so doing, it hopes to attract eight of the top ten biopharmaceutical companies in the world, in a drive to recreate its success with traditional pharmaceutical companies.

Such investments will be hugely capital-intensive and will inject billions into the Irish economy.

To get there, however, will require joined-up thinking, linking the private sector and an array of State agencies including the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and the Higher Education Authority.

With Wyeth, Genzyme, Schering Plough and, most recently, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Centocor's 700m investment in Cork, Ireland has already put itself on the global biotech map.

The next few years will be critical if Ireland is to really establish itself as an international hub for biotechnology and, in particular, biopharmaceuticals.

The stakes are high, with typical multinational investments ranging from 300m to 1bn, creating anything up to 750 jobs at a time.

To attract this sort of investment requires an integrated approach that nurtures top scientists and tries to encourage indigenous entrepreneurs.

A look at a number of recent acquisitions by big pharmaceutical companies - such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline - indicates all of the serious heavyweights are looking to biotech to fuel future growth.

Recent studies of clinical development candidates among top pharmaceutical companies also reveal that almost all major drugs groups are involved in large-molecule, primarily protein, therapeutics - in other words, biotech.

By 2012, it is estimated that 30pc of all new drugs will come from the biopharmaceutical sector.

"Ireland needs to repeat its success with the traditional pharmaceutical industry," Barry O'Leary, head of the Life Sciences division of the IDA, argues.

"For large-scale projects, companies are typically looking at up to 20 different points when constructing a weighted scoring system before making a location decision."

As ever, topping their list are a skilled workforce and a low corporate tax rate.

Less well-known factors include ease of integrating ex-pat workers into Ireland, a strong track record in FDA compliance and strong local management.

For every investment, Ireland is in competition first and foremost with the multinational's home country - usually the US - and then Switzerland, Singapore and Puerto Rico.

Ireland is being undermined on the corporate tax rate front with rival countries now being prepared to drop taxes below 2pc, so getting everything else right becomes much more important.

"There is a strong flow of new projects," Mr O'Leary says. "We want to be among the world leaders by 2007 with eight out of the top ten biopharma companies in Ireland.,"In terms of investment volume it will probably be in the region of between 3bn and 4bn between now and 2007."

To achieve this, he argues, Ireland will need to turn itself into a centre of excellence for biotechnology- which is where SFI comes in.

SFI has set aside roughly half of its €120m annual budget to invest in biotech.

To date it has invested in three biotech Centres for Science Engineering and Technology (CSETs) which employ about 80 people.

These are: The Regenerative Medicine Institute in Galway (headed by Prof Tim O'Brien), which looks into gene therapy and stem cell research; the Cork-based Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (headed by Prof Fergus Shanahan), which is looking at gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn's disease or colon cancer; and the Royal College of Surgeons (headed by Prof Dolores Cahill), which is looking at proteins involved in cardiovascular and other diseases.

A second programme of investment put funds into investigator awards of 1m to 80 principal researchers employing about 400 researchers at all levels.

Maurice Treacy, director of SFI's biotechnology division, says: "The key thing in growing the sector is, how do you get academic labs collaborating with companies? You need to get the right people in the same room talking to each other.

"We hope to really help the IDA broaden the activities of the multinationals in Ireland, from not just manufacturing but to R&D.

"There are a lot of incentives we can make to attract these companies into Ireland - one of these is to grow the strength of the research landscape in universities.

"Big pharmas are in a bad way. They are lacking in innovation for such big giants. But what they are good at is clinical valuation, sales and marketing, and distribution. They are looking to companies and universities for innovation. It is a real opportunity for Ireland.

"We need joined-up thinking between ourselves, the HEA, the IDA and different agencies if we are to be successful. Building critical mass will be a key component in our success.

"We might be doing well economically but, if the environment out there changes, we are more vulnerable than the US or Russia or China.

"We really need the right synergies and collaborations to work together to fend off those changes."

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