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Circle of life sciences: Ireland’s medtech start-up ecosystem

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Enterprise Ireland’s Alan Hobbs explains how Ireland’s indigenous life sciences start-ups grew from a wealth of multinational experience.

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What’s the recipe for a thriving life sciences start-up ecosystem? It starts with a sizeable portion of the major multinational players in the industry converging in one space. Like a good sourdough starter, this combination activates and grows under the right conditions. It swells with experience and talent, spawning serial innovators backed by a wealth of experience. At least, that’s the traditional Irish recipe.

According to Alan Hobbs, the life sciences industry in Ireland is so active that exact figures change almost daily. When I spoke to the Enterprise Ireland lead for high-potential life sciences start-ups earlier this month, he estimated that there are about 180 domestic life sciences companies in Ireland employing in excess of 25,000 people and generating sales above $6bn per year. These indigenous life sciences companies span pharma, biotech, diagnostics and therapeutics, but the lion’s share are medical device businesses.

“Before the large multinationals were here, a lot of our medical-based device talent was going overseas for opportunities. But these companies allowed them to come back and build their careers in Ireland,” said Hobbs.

‘The more experienced entrepreneurs in medical devices are on their third and fourth company’
– ALAN HOBBS

Discussions around the life sciences industry in Ireland often centre on the fact that the majority of the world’s biggest pharma, biotech and medtech companies have operations here. Less attention has been paid to how being such a crucial node in this global network has generated a thriving indigenous industry.

Experienced professionals working in life sciences multinationals may have innovative ideas of their own that don’t fit the R&D roadmap of their employer, Hobbs explained. “So they’re encouraged and facilitated to go off and spin out their own start-up. And in some cases they’re supported financially,” he said.

This cycle of larger companies spawning new entities is particularly advantageous in an industry as complex as medtech. These emerging entrepreneurs come with deep domain expertise, experience of building a product and established industry contacts. And this cycle has already produced a number of serial entrepreneurs.

“If you look at the more experienced entrepreneurs in medical devices now, they’re on their third and fourth company. So they’ve got a ready-made network, ready-made management teams. They know the process, they know how it works. The regulatory process, the clinical trials – all of that skillset is here,” said Hobbs.

The next stage for these serial entrepreneurs, then, is angel investment, furthering the cycle that generates more local life sciences entrepreneurship. “Look at the west of Ireland in particular. It has been well documented. We’re very fortunate there,” said Hobbs. “There is a series of high net-worth angel investors that are spawning start-ups and they’re acting as non-executive directors, advisers, mentors, chairpersons and funders.”

The baseline of industry experience that underpins life sciences entrepreneurship also supports the investment side, as these angels are capable of identifying the long-term opportunities. In some cases, Hobbs explained, these angel investors leverage their global connections. “We have some start-ups over the last couple of years where the initial IP came in from the US. For example, the Mayo Clinic and other big institutes were prepared to license basic IP into an Irish entity because they knew of the ecosystem here that could help exploit it and develop products and a company out of it,” he said.

‘When you start up a medical device company, it’s a very expensive journey you’re going on’
– ALAN HOBBS

Early-stage funding is crucial for any start-up but in medtech in particular, it’s a necessary lifeline. “When you start up a medical device company, it’s a very expensive journey you’re going on and it takes quite some time,” said Hobbs.

Bringing a medical device to market can take years of design, trials and validation, not to mention the regulatory requirements. “The more non-dilutive money you can raise early in the process, the more value you can build in your company before you take on VCs. And that means you preserve as much equity as you can,” advised Hobbs.

Enterprise Ireland recently launched its supports for non-dilutive funding from EU programmes such as the European Innovation Council and Horizon Europe. The agency has established a dedicated website, HorizonEurope.ie, where potential applicants can find out more about the programme and explore past Irish success stories, of which there have been many. Irish research and innovation secured more than €1bn in support from Horizon 2020, the pre-cursor to Horizon Europe, and Hobbs expects to see continued success under the new programme.

Life sciences companies can also avail of non-dilutive funding from the Irish Government’s Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund. Just last week, healthcare solutions in areas such as cancer treatments and chronic knee osteoarthritis were among the 29 projects awarded in the latest €95m funding round.

Funds such as these help to somewhat offset the challenge of securing early-stage funding, and for that there’s also Enterprise Ireland and the aforementioned angels. With the latter, Hobbs has noticed a trend of investors going in earlier with much larger sums to support life sciences companies. This can be a risky move but the depth of native life sciences knowledge makes these bets look more promising.

“You have a serial entrepreneur, somebody who has gone again, so they’ve already gone through a start-up in life science and med device. They’ve a fairly good idea about what works and how it works,” said Hobbs. The process will still take a lot of time and money, but investors can take a lower risk on a safe bet.

Another way in which Ireland is producing promising investments is through BioInnovate, the flagship programme within Enterprise Ireland’s life sciences division. This clinical immersion programme gives its selected fellows nine months to just observe clinical environments and see where opportunities may lie.

The ideal opportunity will identify a substantial addressable market with an unmet clinical need that, if addressed, can improve patient outcomes. These three key ingredients make for a highly attractive investment proposition. Add in the ability to decrease associated costs and Hobbs said, “It’s a slam dunk.”

‘Remote diagnostics monitoring has really been accelerated because of Covid’
– ALAN HOBBS

When it comes to emerging opportunities in life sciences investment, Hobbs cited, “AI, machine learning, diagnostics, imaging and electroporation [the use of an electric pulse to introduce DNA or drugs into cells].” And, of course, the biggest trend of 2020: remote healthcare.

Hobbs said that a number of Enterprise Ireland client companies “exploded growth-wise” over the last year as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Remote diagnostics monitoring has really been accelerated because of Covid, and it has actually helped us because it has opened the HSE and other health systems around the world to adopting technology earlier.”

Hobbs praised Prof Martin Curley, the HSE’s director of digital transformation, and his team in particular for what has been achieved in Irish healthcare in the past year. “Credit to them. They’ve opened the doors and they’ve been very, very helpful,” said Hobbs.

Irish companies such as Wellola, which supports remote GP consultations, and PatientmPower, which has a device that enables remote monitoring of respiratory conditions, have directly supported Ireland’s Covid-19 response. Others such as BlueDrop Medical, whose medical device allows diabetes patients to check for signs of a developing foot ulcer at home, are perfectly poised to succeed in a connected health future.

The digital transformation of healthcare has taken a leap forward under Covid-19, accelerating what has long been the future plan for the HSE. Sláintecare, the Government’s roadmap for the future of Irish healthcare is all about moving more and more medical interventions away from the hospital, and Irish medtech companies have already begun laying the foundations to make this possible.

And it all begins with that recipe to feed life sciences innovation. “It’s a combination of the experience we have, the people that are there, the multinationals that are there, our repeat entrepreneurs, serial entrepreneurs, then the funding that’s available,” said Hobbs.

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SSD belonging to Euro-cloud Scaleway was stolen from back of a truck, then turned up on YouTube • The Register

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In brief Deepmind and the European Bioinformatics Institute released a database of more than 350,000 3D protein structures predicted by the biz’s AI model AlphaFold.

That data covers the 20,000 or so proteins made in the human body, and is available for anyone to study. The proteomes of 20 other organisms, from Zebrafish to E.coli bacteria, are also in there, too, and hundreds of millions of more structures will be added over time, we’re told.

“In the hands of scientists around the world, this new protein almanac will enable and accelerate research that will advance our understanding of these building blocks of life,” said DeepMind’s CEO Demis Hassabis. He hopes that it will be a valuable resource that will be used in the discovery of new drugs and our understanding of diseases.

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Reid Hoffman to join board of electric air-taxi start-up Joby

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Reid Hoffman. Image: ReidHoffman.org

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is helping to take Joby, which is being billed as ‘Tesla meets Uber in the air’, public through a SPAC deal.

Electric air-taxi start-up Joby Aviation will add Silicon Valley figure Reid Hoffman to its board as the company prepares to go public via a merger with a blank-cheque firm.

LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman, who is now a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, has a key connection to the 12-year-old start-up. Earlier this year, it was announced that Joby is going public through a $6.6bn reverse merger deal with Reinvent Technology Partners, the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Hoffman set up with Zynga founder Mark Pincus and investor Michael Thompson.

The deal is expected to close in this summer. Joby is the first aerial vehicle start-up to go public via the SPAC route, and the deal will provide the company with $1.6bn in cash.

SPACs have been growing in popularity this year as they can provide a quicker way of bringing a company public rather than the traditional route of an initial public offering.

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Hoffman will be added by the Joby board once the deal is complete, alongside Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado and former Southwest Airlines CFO Laura Wright.

Toyota Motor Corporation board member and operating officer James Kuffner and Zoox CEO Aicha Evans have already been added to the board in recent months.

“We are incredibly humbled to have been able to assemble such a remarkable and diverse group of world-class leaders to guide and support Joby as we plan to enter the public market,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Joby CEO and founder.

Joby acquired Uber’s Elevate flying car business at the end of December and now plans to begin a commercial passenger ‘air taxi’ service in 2024. Hoffman described the venture as “Tesla meets Uber in the air” in a recent interview.

The company will work with Toyota from its California-based manufacturing facility to build its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Toyota led the company’s $620m Series C funding round last year, with other investors including Intel Capital and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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