Northern Ireland’s Life and Health Sciences innovation sector is booming, with recent figures showing it is the fastest growing sector in the region, with 75% of all spinout companies from universities in the health and life sciences space.
Led by talented scientists these companies have developed cutting-edge technology, with excellent capital efficiency showing resiliency and agility in a volatile market.
Joann Rhodes, Chief Executive of the Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland (HIRANI) said: "Over the past year, the sector has had 9% jobs growth and 23% sales growth in NI yet is underexplored and ripe for growth and investment.
“The life sciences sector is one of the highest value-generating sectors in the UK. Taking its direct GVA and long-term R&D spill-over effects together, 38 pharmaceutical manufacturers (the largest segment of the sector) generated 1.25 times the economic value of the UK automotive sector and about 2.4 times that of the UK aerospace and oil and gas industries in 2019.
“These figures suggest life sciences has a double impact on the economy; not only for the improved patient outcomes it delivers but also for the economic value health innovation generates.
“In Northern Ireland, the sector provides £1.3 billion in GVA and directly employs 27,600 people including those working within over 300 SMEs in health and life sciences. And for every one job created in health and life sciences, a further two jobs are created in supporting sectors."
Northern Ireland is the highly advantageous position of being the only region in the world able to trade goods freely with both GB and EU markets and establishing a business in NI, companies can become much more competitive thanks to unique tariff-free access to two of the biggest markets in the world.
Taking advantage of these advantages of their home market are Lisburn-based digital health company Cirdan Ltd, who are leading their field, partnering digital imaging with analytics to ensure more accurate, earlier diagnosis of breast cancer to accelerate treatment for patients and reduce the burden on healthcare systems, setting digital imaging precedents to support healthcare professionals diagnose patients earlier and relieving pressure on the patient, their families and health systems with the growing cancer epidemic.
They are global leaders in laboratory information systems, focused on helping pathology laboratories meet their digital health needs and have their headquarters in Lisburn with offices in Canada and Australia and provide 24/7, 365-day support to their seventy global customers.
pHion Therapeutics are a NI spinout and founder and CEO, Professor Helen McCarthy spun out the company in 2017 because she could see that gene therapy would never fulfil its potential until a range of delivery systems were developed.
The company has had many offers to relocate to well-known bio-tech hubs in GB and the US. However, they have resisted, choosing instead to garner knowledge from experts externally and bring it back to Belfast. The goal is to create a new industry for many of the talented graduates from both local universities, and for those who have left NI and wish to return.
Winning both Invent and the All-Ireland Seedcorn Competition in 2017 paved the way for the company’s early development of the use of this peptide technology to deliver mRNA vaccines.
Belfast based Diaceutics study of US patient data recently showed how 64% of lung cancer patients did not receive the most effective medicines to stop their tumours, meaning patients are frequently unable to access treatment, tailored to their genetic make-up with considerable implications for their recovery andchances of survival.
“Personalised Medicine brings a more promising future to the millions of patients undergoing cancer treatment,” said Peter Keeling CEO at Diaceutics.
Peter has driven Diaceutics to become a leader in innovative solutions that enable pharma to leverage diagnostic testing globally.
Northwest NI Entrepreneur Dr Susan Kelly was amongst this year’s 50 winners of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Awards who are developing novel solutions to major social, environmental, and economic challenges.
Dr Kelly, from Derry, Co-founder of Respiratory Analytics, designed an AI-led respiratory device, aflo™, for those with asthma, after witnessing her partner and two children being hospitalised due to life-threatening asthma attacks. Research shows almost 90% of sufferers do not master the right technique to get the best benefit from their inhalers, and aflo™ has been designed to do this automatically for them.
“It’s a terrifying thing to witness a family member having a life-threatening asthma attack. Inhaled medications are the cornerstone of asthma management and I’ve seen how difficult it is to get inhaler technique right to optimise these drugs, which is why this innovation was born.”
Behind the thriving industry sector is a rich pipeline of global leading universities, early career researchers, spinouts and increasingly spin-ins from other countries.
Northern Ireland has the only fully integrated health and social care system in the UK, creating a truly unique dataset, benefitting from a stable 1.9m population for clinical trial recruitment.
Underpinned by the Northern Ireland Electronic Care Record (NIECR), with every citizen having a unique patient identifier, Northern Ireland has a safe and secure ‘cradle-to-grave’ record for more than 500,000 people, with highly characterised clinical cohorts, for which Northern Ireland is working towards enabling access for enriched clinical trials.
“We are home to one of Europe's most business-friendly, connected regions with a guaranteed talent pipeline, highly skilled, educated workforce and free, customised training and recruitment programs for investors with operating costs up to 30% lower than other locations in the UK and Europe.
It is no surprise that more than 1,200 international companies have already established operations in Northern Ireland.,” said Joann Rhodes who is also a visiting Professor at Ulster University.
“We are a small nation having a huge impact on global innovation”.