What should the Irish pharma industry do with its success and how can it secure its future? This was one of the big questions explored by the expert panel at the recent Guaranteed Irish Pharma event in Dublin.

The transformation of Ireland from a beer and biscuits economy to a high-tech hub is the envy of many countries around the world. Ireland has enjoyed years of incredible growth in the biopharma, pharma and chemical sectors, which now accounts for an astonishing €106bn in exports, 67% of the total exports from the country. This success that all those in Ireland benefit from shouldn’t be taken for granted and it’s important to appreciate its origin.

The inception can be traced back to the long-term strategies of those in the IDA as far back as the 1960s who worked to attract the high-tech sector.

Ever-increasingly ambitious and technical pharma capabilities

Pivotal early sites such as Pfizer in Ringaskiddy and MSD in Ballydine helped to create a knowledge base that grew to give confidence in Ireland's ability to deliver ever-increasingly ambitious and technical pharma capabilities.

The Irish pharma industry grew and adapted along the way, with concerted efforts at the dawning of the biopharma revolution where Ireland bet big and successfully made itself a prime country to locate.

So back to that question: what should be done with the success of the Irish pharma industry? This was one of the wide-ranging areas discussed by the expert panel led by Mairéad McCaul (managing director, MSD Ireland – sponsor of the event) and which included Matt Moran (director, BioPharmaChem Ireland), Brenda Dooley (CEO, AXIS Healthcare Consulting Ltd) and Michael O Connell (president, IPHA, and country director, Biogen).

Panel insights

1) Excellence is the minimum requirement: There is no room for coasting and Ireland Inc needs to continue to deliver on facilities and supply, maintaining the high level of quality while staying cost competitive in a global market. Industry confidence has been shown with the continued capital investment but this all depends on belief of continued capacity and stability for decades into the future.

2) Better access to high-tech medicine in Ireland: This requires improving the mechanisms and resourcing for assessing therapies and reducing the Time To Reimbursement (TTR). As sobering an idea as it is, it is likely each of us will be patients some day. If we’re in a situation where we supply the rest of the world but have no access ourselves, this could impact the overall positive sentiment that has been built up. 

3) Staying at the cutting edge: Preparing for the oncoming wave of new therapeutic modalities and platforms such as CGTs is crucial. Recent investments in National Institute of Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) and new courses across Irish universities signal the widespread support to ensure that there is a ready supply of talent when considering locating. The response from the industry has been very positive, with the early industry establishment of a cell therapy manufacturing facility at Takeda Grange Castle in Dublin 22. It was also put forward that Ireland should be looking to position itself as a global leader for clinical trials, often a bottleneck in getting new treatments to patients.

4) Supporting native pharma and ecosystem: The point was made about the danger of over-reliance on FDI for the sector and the importance of supporting those endeavours started and headquartered locally, such as the success story of APC/VLE in Cherrywood, Dublin. Beyond those companies directly developing and producing medicines, there is also the ecosystem of Irish companies serving the various aspects of pharma through engineering, technology and consultancy.

5) Embracing digitalisation and Pharma 5.0: It is generally accepted that the only way to not be left behind in the accelerating pharma world is by embracing digital across the business. This also helps with boosting individual productivity with the human-centric approach of Pharma 5.0. Government investment in the likes of the Advanced Manufacturing Centre (AMC), located in the National Technology Park, Limerick, which aims to enable Irish-based manufacturers to access, adopt and accelerate new digital technologies through their lighthouse approach.

6) Need for continued collaboration: The industry requires a host of various skillsets for end-to-end execution. Most companies can’t do everything internally within the time frames required and often partner with local specialists. Collaboration can also expand awareness of the innovations available, which might otherwise be difficult to come across if a company is only looking inward. This can take the form of collaboration with research institutions and universities, lighthouse centres such as AMC, policy groups such as Biopharmachem Ireland, technical forums such as ISPE, PDA, communities such as Guaranteed Irish and with smaller companies through innovation marketplaces such as the Innovation Exchange.

7) Diversify capabilities and knowledge base: As well as looking to the new modalities, the point was made to look at existing and stable areas to protect against over-reliance on the 'next new thing'. Areas mentioned were reshoring of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) given supply chain concerns and that the vast majority of pharmaceuticals by volume are still chemistry based. 

8) Creation of a national life sciences strategy: A holistic government strategy for the life sciences has been repeatedly asked for in forums such as this, with no movement in sight. Given its importance for the wellbeing of the Irish people as well as the economic reliance, we are sure to hear this again and again until it is eventually put in place.

The full-house event concluded with optimism for the future of Irish pharma. Recognition of the achievements was given with a feeling of responsibility for the work left to do but it is clear that Ireland is focused on staying a leading provider of pharmaceuticals to the benefit of patients everywhere.