As a small nation (a population of just over 1.8 million) with a celebrated industrial heritage, Northern Ireland isn’t a place you might immediately associate with technological discovery. However, its keen focus on the future, teamed with the region’s entrepreneurial tradition, academic strengths and international connections, has created a unique ecosystem over recent decades; one that is providing a welcoming home to many of the sectors that are transforming our world for the better.
This approach to collaboration has been the driving force behind Northern Ireland’s burgeoning cyber security industry - an achievement that has made Belfast the number one location globally for US cyber security projects – and others, including fintech, data analytics and health tech. Indeed, the Financial Times listed the capital city in the world’s top 10 Digital Economies of the Future - the only UK city outside London to be listed – an incredible accolade that proves this approach is working.
Health tech has been a more recent area of growth; yet its origins are founded in Northern Ireland’s long-standing heritage as a provider of quality medical training. Queen’s University in Belfast, for example, has provided medical training for over 150 years, and today it accepts over 250-300 admissions each year.
But what is it about this ecosystem that has allowed technology, IT, data analytics and medicine to collide? I’ll explain.
NI MedTech – a snapshot
First, let’s explore some of the innovations taking place today.
Northern Ireland’s life sciences sector has developed a range of specialities including precision medicine, diagnostics, e-health and data analytics, making it a home to a vibrant cluster of more than 250 businesses operating in these fields.
Major players in the health tech sector include the likes of Diaceutics, which works with pharmaceutical firms on diagnostic testing and data analytics to bring more personalised medicine to patients. Neurovalens, which specialises in combining neuroscience and technology to tackle global health challenges, is also a key player, while Randox, a world leader in the in-vitro diagnostics industry, has been a long-standing member of this burgeoning community, having been established over 35 years ago.
The region has also welcomed Stryker, Bemis, G&L Scientific, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, a global leader in biopharmaceuticals. Almac Group, is a home-grown global player which provides an extensive range of integrated services to companies within the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors globally.
This combination of home-grown success stories and inward investment from larger players has really helped the industry flourish and lay down roots. But there’s another element that’s been critical to its growth: people.
The health tech workforce
The role our two main universities, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, play in attracting these companies to invest here and in the growth of our home-grown health tech sector should not be underestimated.
Both rank among the top 10 universities in the UK for bioscience research and more than 1,000 researchers work in the region’s Centres of Excellence.
Those which are particular drivers in the health tech sector include Ulster University’s Connected Health Innovation Centre (CHIC) which is focused on business led research in the area of connected health. The University is also home to the Intelligent Systems Research Centre which provides a state-of-the-art research environment for bio-inspired neuro-engineering, brain-computer interfacing, computational neuroscience, cognitive robotics and, instrumentation. It also provides facilities for research in ambient intelligence and wireless sensor networks.
QUB research centres of excellence include The Patrick G Johnston Cancer Research Centre, Precision Medicine Centre QUB, and The Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine whose researchers have been awarded a grant of £295,626 in a bid to find an urgently needed treatment for COVID-19, led by Professor of Molecular Virology, Ultan Power.
These facilities provide an unbeatable base for discovery and innovation that fuels home-grown entrepreneurship. Indeed, it is the strength of these facilities’ collaboration with industry that lends Northern Ireland its competitive edge. While many investors have cited the country’s skilled workforce as a major draw, it’s the universities’ willingness to work closely with businesses to furnish their students with sought after skills that is among the key reasons why they have taken an interest in our region.
Taking this feedback on-board, the Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland (HIRANI) was launched in 2019 to supercharge collaboration. By bringing Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and key Northern Ireland private and public partners together, this alliance aims to provide ‘one voice’ for the industry and enable the sector to collectively promote and strategically position itself nationally and internationally.
Providing a home
In addition to university based research centres, co-working spaces and incubation hubs are springing up across Northern Ireland and are adding further weight to our supportive ecosystem.
Ormeau Baths, a former Victorian Bath House which has been transformed into a co-working space, is now the beating heart of Northern Ireland’s indigenous tech start-up scene and is home to over 200 members from almost every industry imaginable. Some of the health tech start-ups based here include the likes of MedAll Ltd - an app for healthcare professionals to develop their medical career portfolio and collaborate with others on research, and Overwatch Research Ltd a company specialising in in-vivo preclinical tracking software for labs.
Construction is now also underway at Kings Hall Health and Wellbeing Park to create a healthcare hub of the future. The first phase of the £100m development will see the construction of Dataworks, a new precision medicine hub designed to attract data-focused medical companies to a secure and collaborative space. Medtech pioneer Diaceutics, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, has already signed up as an anchor tenant with others are expected to follow suit.
Further to this, Invest Northern Ireland also provides businesses with a range of services to help set-up, innovate and grow. From access to specialist knowledge, including academic and research organisations, to initial financial and recruitment support.
A testament to the effectiveness of this supportive environment is that despite having a relatively modest number of start-ups compared to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland-based companies are best at surpassing a £1m turnover in their first three years — nearly three per cent succeed, compared to 1.9 per cent in the rest of the UK.
2020 and beyond
From these foundations, many Northern Ireland health tech start-ups have begun to take their innovations to markets around the globe and there have been some notable examples already this year.
In March, Cirdan - which has created of a suite of innovative informatics and imaging products - received £1.5m in funding to boost Research & Development. This follows on from a new deal with a US distributor and a multi-million dollar contract to support laboratories in Singapore and Malaysia.
Earlier this year, Neurovalens was one of 30 firms to be selected for Tech Nation's Upscale 5.0 programme, which supports fast-growing tech companies. This follows swiftly on from a recent £750,000 funding win to support the launch of its Modius Sleep product - its pioneering drug-free, non-invasive headset which actively stimulates key neurons in the brain to improve sleep - in the US.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic a number of Northern Ireland-based organisations have been quick to respond and have again demonstrated the power of the region’s collaborative approach.
County Antrim’s Randox Laboratories has worked alongside German industrial giant Bosch to develop a new rapid test for Covid-19 in less than six weeks. It’s one of the world’s first fully-automated molecular diagnostic tests and can detect a SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infection in patients in under two and a half hours.
As you can see, Northern Ireland’s medtech sector is in rude health.
The collaborative ecosystem which we are continually building upon, is not only helping to attract inward investment but is enabling the innovators based in Northern Ireland to shape one of the world’s most critical industries.
Northern Ireland is fast becoming a health tech hub of global importance and our ambitions show no signs of waning.
As we continue to strengthen the partnerships between academia and industry, and invest in new incubation hubs and research centres, we look forward to welcoming more of the world’s leading life sciences organisations to our shores. And, of course, seeing the impact our home-grown innovations have on people’s health around the globe.
To find out more about Northern Ireland’s Life and Health Sciences sector and the support on offer to businesses looking to invest visit Invest NI.com