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Ireland's Biotech Boom

By Samara McCarthy

How the Emerald Isle has made its name in the life sciences. 

April 14, 2006 | Ireland has become synonymous with economic success over the past decade. Both large and small countries alike have reviewed with awe how a country can quietly develop and then take on the world as a major competitive force, while maintaining the integrity and charm for which it is renowned. In 2004, Ireland led the Harvard Business Online Global Creative-Class Index. Also in 2004, AT Kearney’s Offshore Location Attractiveness Index ranked Ireland fourth in the world for people and skills, and third for business environment. In 2005, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a leading research and advisory firm with more than 40 offices worldwide, placed Ireland first out of 111 countries surveyed for their Quality of Life Index.

Government investment in a number of strategic industries has been a main force behind this success, and the life sciences and IT industries are leading drivers. As these industries have developed, so too has Ireland’s offering, with the country continually looking at and addressing the emerging trends, thus ensuring a successful ongoing relationship with the overseas and indigenous companies that have been the anchor of Ireland’s accomplishments.

Some recent products that Ireland offers, and that add to the global biotech development, include a pre-approved biopharma campus, a world-class biotech institute for collaborative industrial and academic research (additionally and independently, there continue to be other exceptional facilities for industrial research), and R&D partnerships with numerous countries, including the United States and India.

Through foreign direct investment since the 1960s, Ireland has grown a globally significant life sciences industry. Today, there are more than 170 companies employing 35,000 people in the pharmaceutical/ chemical, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, and diagnostics industries. Together these sectors generated more than $52 billion in exports in 2005. Nine of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies have major operations in Ireland. IDA Ireland, the government’s agency responsible for attracting foreign direct investment to the country, continues to drive the international development of this industry in Ireland; its performance being driven by operational excellence, strong infrastructure, government financial incentives, and free access to the large European Union market of 450 million people.

Foreign direct investment in Ireland has been attracted by low rates of corporate tax. Today, Ireland has one of the world’s lowest rates of corporation tax, with the maximum rate for trading profits being 12 percent. Other factors that help attract biopharmaceutical companies to Ireland include the ready availability of the required specialist skills. Output from the third-level institutions is being continually refined to meet the sector’s needs. Further, the considerable growth in the Irish economy over the past 10 years has seen very significant repatriation of skilled people. In addition, Ireland is seen as a desirable expatriate location with a minimum of bureaucratic obstacles and an excellent educational system that facilitates family relocation. The free movement of labor within the enlarged European Union has facilitated the swift acquisition of a further pool of skilled people.

Each of the sectors is dominated by industry leaders with companies such as Pfizer, Amgen, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Genzyme, Boston Scientific, and Abbott having substantial operations in Ireland. Their satisfaction with Ireland has resulted in several examples of multiple investments, including Abbott with six operations and Johnson & Johnson, Wyeth, and Boston Scientific each having four. Pfizer, in addition to operating six manufacturing sites, also runs a corporate bank and European financial shared services from Ireland.

Ireland’s biotech industry is primed for growth. This success is due in part to the groundwork done over the past decade by IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and to the significant increase in R&D investment in the sector in recent years. IDA Ireland and SFI are working on developing greater links between industrial and academic research. Together they are building incentives and initiatives to encourage collaborative projects.

Through IDA Ireland, the country continues to attract flagship projects in biopharma (Amgen, Centocor, Pfizer), new business models (Kellogg, Gilead, and Merck), and R&D (GSK, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genzyme, and Olympus). Ireland is focused on building a pharma-biopharma cluster and has moved from a predominantly manufacturing dominance to a more integrated sector attracting activities across the value chain. This includes R&D, development and manufacturing, technology platform companies, and new business models such as European HQ, sales and marketing, clinical trial management, and regulatory affairs.

Significant biomanufacturing is taking place throughout Ireland in companies such as Allergan, Schering Plough, and Genzyme. There is strong indigenous activity also with the formation of a number of Irish companies including Biotrin, Archport, Trinity Biotech, and EiRx. Elan Corporation has recently established a sterile biopharmaceuticals plant, and Amgen announced earlier this year that it will be investing more than $1 billion to build process development, bulk manufacturing, and fill finish facilities in the south of Ireland. Wyeth, at a cost of $2 billion, has built the world’s largest biotechnology manufacturing and development plant at Grangecastle, Co. Dublin. It has also established a biotherapeutic drug discovery research facility on University College Dublin’s campus that will comprise top-class research scientists focusing on product discovery, preclinical research, and drug discovery technology development. This type of investment reinforces the caliber of Ireland’s abilities in the field of leading-edge R&D within the international pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical community.

One of the most interesting developments in recent months is the pre-approval of a biopharma campus in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. This is a fully permitted biopharma campus with unparalleled flexibility. The campus is a 67-acre construction-ready site. The site includes planning permission for water purification buildings, waste water treatment facilities, laboratory, fermentation, purification, and fill finish buildings, along with all other ingredients necessary to implement a fully operational biopharma campus.

Ireland is also establishing a national bioprocessing research, education, training, and service facility (NIBRT). The facility, with a capital investment of more than $80 million, will provide, in conjunction with academic institutions, a substantial output of people with high-level best-practice skills across the spectrum of bioprocessing activities, applicable in a real-time scale-up environment. Other biopharmaceutical research collaborations that are currently taking place in Irish universities incorporating corporate links have seen investment by Wyeth, Medtronic, Proctor & Gamble, and Becton Dickinson. The activities of these companies, combined with indigenous company formation and growth, research effort by the universities, and increasing involvement by the hospitals in clinical research coupled with proactive Government support has created a major cluster with a vibrant networked professional community. It is one of which Ireland is rightly confident will continue to contribute to the development of the industry, and maintain Ireland’s place at the center of global biotechnology. 

Useful Web Sites 

IDA Ireland: 

Biotechnology site for Ireland: 

Science Foundation Ireland: 

Samara McCarthy is vice president, marketing & communications, for IDA Ireland. E-mail: 


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