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Driving the growth of Ireland’s booming medtech sector

With approximately 500 companies exporting over €13b a year to markets all over the world and employing in excess of 45,000 people around the country, it is no wonder that Ireland is regarded as a leading global health tech hub.

Enterprise Ireland supports an indigenous health-tech sector in excess of 400 companies, both start-ups and SMEs, which employ over 12,000 people and export over €2B in products and services. According to a recent Pitchbook report, Enterprise Ireland was named the most active venture investor in Europe, by deal count since 2018.

Despite being a small country, it is home to the world’s top ten companies in the sector and is punching well above its weight, undoubtedly due to the many companies in MedTech, Life Sciences and Technology which have flourished here across the decades.

Even during the global pandemic, Ireland forged ahead and was ranked fifth in the world for COVID-19 related goods. And Dr Christian Stafford, digital health sector lead at Enterprise Ireland, says its reputation is world-renowned.

“There is a large pool of talent to power the health tech sector and along with research, academic and the clinical system, we have created a very rich ecosystem for health tech to grow and thrive,” he said. “We have taken advantage of being a small, open and connected economy to ensure all stakeholders are engaging and working together effectively – this collaborative spirit and the structures we have in place, have been accelerants of innovation and growth.

“On a trade mission to Asia a few years ago, Japan’s top neurosurgeon hosted a small delegation and we observed a procedure to treat a brain clot. He was keen to show us that the stent used had come from Cork and was very proud of his own medical training in Dublin. And the next day we visited a paediatric ICU, where we saw a nebuliser, designed and manufactured by Aerogen, an Irish SME, headquartered in Galway. This tells a wider story of the prolonged success of Ireland in delivering health solutions to clinical centres of excellence globally and the soft power of our hospitals and universities in training medical professionals.”

Of course, the success of the technology sector in Ireland didn’t happen overnight or independently and Dr Stafford says that many factors were forged in order for it to reach its current status.

“The ecosystem here is mature, robust, sophisticated, accessible and highly collaborative and this has arisen by both design and opportunism,” he said. “The foundation stone has been a large, globally leading multinational sector in Tech, MedTech and Pharma and this has been bolstered with a very strong and large indigenous health tech sector.”

Many of Ireland’s medtech companies have their origins in sub-supply to multi-nationals but, according to Dr Stafford, a shift in the last 20 years enabled by the emergence of a new wave of entrepreneurs and a very supportive ‘start-up ecosystem’ has shifted the profile considerably to companies developing their own IP and value add.

“Government policy has helped create favourable conditions for this shift – and Enterprise Ireland has been given the responsibility to implement many of these ecosystem growth drivers,” he said. “These include the collaboration and integration between industry, research, the clinical community and HSE and other government organisations to promote high-quality innovation. Also, the State has heavily invested in or supported a range of enabling initiatives which oil the wheels of the system. And there are also a number of strategic initiatives, such as BioInnovate and Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI), within the national ecosystem, funded by Enterprise Ireland and in partnership with the HSE, to formally help strengthen collaboration between industry and healthcare organisations.”

Global expenditure on healthcare is approximately 10% of GDP, based on pre-COVID figures from the OECD and the World Bank (estimated at €10 trillion for 2022). And although healthcare has traditionally been slow to reform and adopt new ways of working enabled by technology, COVID has transformed the adoption and acceptance of technology as a critical part of healthcare service delivery.

This, says Dr Stafford, has accelerated the significant growth opportunity for digital health as an enabler of safer, better and higher quality care for patients and as a key growth segment for investors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers. It is also a key player in helping Ireland to reduce its carbon footprint.

“The digital transformation of healthcare is probably the single biggest trend in healthcare globally,” he said. “Locally it opens up significant opportunities for Irish companies, entrepreneurs and the health service to collaborate, co-create and accelerate the adoption of new products and services which will enable the delivery of better care, at lower cost with a better experience and quality of life.

“Also, the healthcare industry across the supply chain accounts for 15% of global carbon emissions which means that the sector has to play a key role in the climate change agenda. For this reason, if digital transformation is the biggest current trend, then in many ways it is actually sustainable digital transformation which is really the key challenge in the sector.

“So, in a world where we want to push care to the home and community, using smarter devices and data to monitor and track patients remotely, technology to diagnose and treat and only bringing the most acute cases to hospital – you can readily see how a new way of delivering care, locally and community based is inherently greener and more sustainable while also offering greater quality of life.”

This is just one of the many ways in which the sector is keeping abreast of the ever-changing face of the industry and while the onset of COVID-19 called for rapid development and innovation, Eileen Bell, Senior Development Advisor, Enterprise Ireland, says the ability to pivot and adapt has long been a strength of the technology sector in this country.

“Even before Covid, we were lucky to have some fantastic Irish companies emerge in the digital health space,” she said. “One of the best examples is Health Beacon – a health tech company and Enterprise Ireland-supported-client which has become market leader in smart tools for managing medication – combining software, hardware, the patient, the pharmacist and the clinician in a connected solution which helps with the management of injectables.

Another great example is SilverCloudHealth, who grew from a HPSU in 2011 to a major acquisition by Amwell Health 10 years later in 2021. Even this acquisition has an important legacy, bringing funding for growth, creating high-quality skilled jobs and grounding the company’s R&D activities in Ireland.”

Indeed, Dr Stafford said the key to their success ticks all the boxes – an experienced managed team, investment in R&D, addressing a significant and growing pain point, robust regulatory and clinical development pathways and milestone deals with key health providers in a major market.

“What is also really interesting in the case of Health Beacon, is that they have ‘exited’ via IPO rather than a trade sale which is often the route many Irish SMEs have had to go for investor exit,” he said. “We are also seeing private equity play a role in injecting scaling funds into this sector so it great to have different examples to show the way for other Irish SMEs about how they grow.”

“Post-COVID, there was a record spike in digital health VC investments of €33 billion in 2021 and even in a very challenging global marketplace in 2022, Pitchbook have still reported over €24 billion invested in health tech start-ups. We are now seeing the emergence of a new wave of Irish companies in digital health who are making their mark – for example Halocare, Wellola, Salaso, MediHive, T-Pro, Letsgetchecked and Oneview – all of whom are already very successful in markets such as the UK, Australia and North America and have the ambition and ability to grow even further.”

Growth and development are what it’s all about and the technology sector in Ireland shows no sign of slowing down, with many companies looking to grow and scale within the US market.

This can be a challenging market to break into, but Dr Stafford says that Enterprise Ireland is there to help companies ‘create long-term, trusted relationships’.

“One of the approaches Enterprise Ireland has taken is to create a number of strategic partnerships with some of the foremost health systems in the US and use that as a platform for mutual co-operation,” he said. “Post-COVID, digital health will be at the forefront of the growth opportunities in this market as we look to combine our indigenous ecosystem with those of our partners in the US.”

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