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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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NFTs not annoying enough? Now they come with wallet-emptying malware • The Register

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In brief Whether or not non-fungible tokens are a flash in the pan or forever, malware operators have been keen to weaponise the technology.

An investigation was triggered after a number of cryptowallets belonging to customers of the largest NFT exchange OpenSea got mysteriously emptied. Researchers at security shop Check Point found a nasty form of NFT was in circulation, one that came with its own malware package.

People were receiving free NFTs from an unknown benefactor, but when they accepted the gift the attackers got access to their wallet information in OpenSea’s storage systems. The code generated a pop-up, that if clicked, allowed wallets to be emptied.

After disclosing the issue Opensea had a fix sorted within an hour – we wish others took such prompt action – and the platform appears to be secured. But beware of “free” gifts, particularly where money is involved.

Crime doesn’t pay? really?

A US Treasury report has said that in the last three years ransomware operators using over 60 different variants have siphoned off $5.3bn in Bitcoin payments.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network report [PDF], first spotted by The Record, said that the ransoms taken in the the first six months of this year amounted to $590m, up from $416m for 2020, and the problem is getting worse, according to ten years of 2,184 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) analysed by the agency.

“If current trends continue, SARs filed in 2021 are projected to have a higher ransomware-related transaction value than SARs filed in the previous 10 years combined, which would represent a continuing trend of substantial increases in reported year-over-year ransomware activity,” the Treasury team warned.

Arming robots with sniper rifles, not worrying at all

US-based Ghost Robotics showed off an unusual new gadget this week at a meeting of the Association of the United States Army – a sniper rifle robot.

The robotics firm already has unarmed robot dogs acting as sentries at Tyndall Air Force Base but mounted a 6.5mm sniper rifle with a range of up to 1,200 meters (3937 feet) with both day and night vision cameras. The manufacturers were at pains to point out that this is not autonomous in any way and a human always controls the trigger, the robot just gets into position to keep its human operator safe.

The robot caused something of a storm, and Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh attributed this to the emotional connection robot dogs evoke and decades of movies about killer robots.

US warns critical water systems under attack

American online watchdogs at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has issued a security advisory following a spate of attacks against water and waste management facilities.

Since 2019 CISA said it had recorded five attacks against water systems, mostly ransomware but also aa former employee at Kansas-based water company who tried to tamper with drink water quality using credentials that should have been revoked when they left the biz.

For ransomware operators such businesses are tempting targets. Since water is such an essential service, it’s no-doubt thought that they’d be more likely to pay up rather than cause widespread disruption and panic.

Ukrainian cops cuff botnet suspect

The Security Service of Ukraine announced this week that they had arrested a man accused of running a massive botnet and charging for its use.

The man, a resident of Ivano-Frankivsk region in the west of the country, is said to have been running a botnet made up of over 100,000 infected systems. His opsec wasn’t great, he used telegram to tout for customers and, police say, made use of “electronic payment systems banned in Ukraine.”

A search of the suspect’s premises revealed computer equipment used to operate the botnet, and data stolen from botnet participants. Police say the suspect was also a representative of legitimate Russian payment service Webmoney, which is however under sanctions from the Ukrainian government.

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How scientists in Ireland are using technology to predict the climate

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Scientists at ICHEC have used supercomputing to predict Ireland’s weather patterns for the rest of the century.

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spelled out the intensity of the climate crisis affecting every region of the world because of human activity, and Ireland is no exception.

Scientists at the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC), based at NUI Galway, have been using advanced technology to create climate models and simulations that indicate the impact of the climate crisis on Ireland by mid-century.

Their work has raised some concerning predictions for Ireland’s weather patterns in the coming decades, including more heatwaves, less snow, and increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns – even by Irish standards.

Temperatures are set to increase by between one and 1.6 degrees Celsius relative to levels experienced between 1991 to 2000, with the east seeing the sharpest rise. Heatwaves, especially in the south-east of the country, are expected to become more frequent.

The simulations also found that the number of days Ireland experiences frost and ice will be slashed by half, as will the amount of snow that falls in winter. Rainfall will be more variable with longer dry and wet periods, and surface winds will become weaker.

‘Dramatic changes’

While the report suggests that a heating climate may be good for farming in Ireland – a significant contributor to the economy – it will also be accompanied by the rise of pests that can have potentially devastating effects on agriculture.

Reduced wind strength and unpredictable weather will have an impact on Ireland’s growing renewable energy infrastructure, which relies heavily on specific climate conditions to reach targets.

“A mean warming of two or three degrees Celsius does not seem like much, given that temperatures can vary by a lot more than that just from day to day,” said ICHEC climate scientists Dr Paul Nolan and Dr Enda O’Brien.

“However, even that amount of warming is likely to lead to widespread and even dramatic changes in ice cover – especially in the Arctic – to sea levels, and in the natural world of plants and animals.”

Ireland’s contribution

With machine learning and supercomputing, scientists are able to use historical climate data and observations to improve predictions of Earth’s future climate – and the impacts of the climate crisis.

Ireland is part of a consortium of several northern European countries that contribute to the IPCC reports by running global climate models that feed into the report’s assessment.

As part of the consortium, Nolan has conducted many centuries worth of global climate simulations using the EC-Earth climate model, which represents the most relevant physical processes that operate in the atmosphere, oceans, land surface and sea ice.

The simulations range from historical data – so the model can be compared to real climate records – to the end of the 21st century, with the aim of providing a comprehensive picture of climate trends and what the future could hold. The ICHEC research is funded and supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, Met Éireann and the Marine Institute in Galway.

“The level of detail and consistency achieved gives confidence in these projections and allows an ever more persuasive evidence-based consensus to emerge that humans are forcing rapid climate change in well-understood ways,” Nolan and O’Brien wrote in the Irish Times this week.

“How to respond to that consensus now is a matter primarily for governments, since they can have the most impact, as well as for individuals.”

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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Apple’s plan to scan images will allow governments into smartphones | John Naughton

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For centuries, cryptography was the exclusive preserve of the state. Then, in 1976, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman came up with a practical method for establishing a shared secret key over an authenticated (but not confidential) communications channel without using a prior shared secret. The following year, three MIT scholars – Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman – came up with the RSA algorithm (named after their initials) for implementing it. It was the beginning of public-key cryptography – at least in the public domain.

From the very beginning, state authorities were not amused by this development. They were even less amused when in 1991 Phil Zimmermann created Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software for signing, encrypting and decrypting texts, emails, files and other things. PGP raised the spectre of ordinary citizens – or at any rate the more geeky of them – being able to wrap their electronic communications in an envelope that not even the most powerful state could open. In fact, the US government was so enraged by Zimmermann’s work that it defined PGP as a munition, which meant that it was a crime to export it to Warsaw Pact countries. (The cold war was still relatively hot then.)

In the four decades since then, there’s been a conflict between the desire of citizens to have communications that are unreadable by state and other agencies and the desire of those agencies to be able to read them. The aftermath of 9/11, which gave states carte blanche to snoop on everything people did online, and the explosion in online communication via the internet and (since 2007) smartphones, has intensified the conflict. During the Clinton years, US authorities tried (and failed) to ensure that all electronic devices should have a secret backdoor, while the Snowden revelations in 2013 put pressure on internet companies to offer end-to-end encryption for their users’ communications that would make them unreadable by either security services or the tech companies themselves. The result was a kind of standoff: between tech companies facilitating unreadable communications and law enforcement and security agencies unable to access evidence to which they had a legitimate entitlement.

In August, Apple opened a chink in the industry’s armour, announcing that it would be adding new features to its iOS operating system that were designed to combat child sexual exploitation and the distribution of abuse imagery. The most controversial measure scans photos on an iPhone, compares them with a database of known child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and notifies Apple if a match is found. The technology is known as client-side scanning or CSS.

Powerful forces in government and the tech industry are now lobbying hard for CSS to become mandatory on all smartphones. Their argument is that instead of weakening encryption or providing law enforcement with backdoor keys, CSS would enable on-device analysis of data in the clear (ie before it becomes encrypted by an app such as WhatsApp or iMessage). If targeted information were detected, its existence and, potentially, its source would be revealed to the agencies; otherwise, little or no information would leave the client device.

CSS evangelists claim that it’s a win-win proposition: providing a solution to the encryption v public safety debate by offering privacy (unimpeded end-to-end encryption) and the ability to successfully investigate serious crime. What’s not to like? Plenty, says an academic paper by some of the world’s leading computer security experts published last week.

The drive behind the CSS lobbying is that the scanning software be installed on all smartphones rather than installed covertly on the devices of suspects or by court order on those of ex-offenders. Such universal deployment would threaten the security of law-abiding citizens as well as lawbreakers. And even though CSS still allows end-to-end encryption, this is moot if the message has already been scanned for targeted content before it was dispatched. Similarly, while Apple’s implementation of the technology simply scans for images, it doesn’t take much to imagine political regimes scanning text for names, memes, political views and so on.

In reality, CSS is a technology for what in the security world is called “bulk interception”. Because it would give government agencies access to private content, it should really be treated like wiretapping and regulated accordingly. And in jurisdictions where bulk interception is already prohibited, bulk CSS should be prohibited as well.

In the longer view of the evolution of digital technology, though, CSS is just the latest step in the inexorable intrusion of surveillance devices into our lives. The trend that started with reading our emails, moved on to logging our searches and our browsing clickstreams, mining our online activity to create profiles for targeting advertising at us and using facial recognition to allow us into our offices now continues by breaching the home with “smart” devices relaying everything back to motherships in the “cloud” and, if CSS were to be sanctioned, penetrating right into our pockets, purses and handbags. That leaves only one remaining barrier: the human skull. But, rest assured, Elon Musk undoubtedly has a plan for that too.

What I’ve been reading

Wheels within wheels
I’m not an indoor cyclist but if I were, The Counterintuitive Mechanics of Peloton Addiction, a confessional blogpost by Anne Helen Petersen, might give me pause.

Get out of here
The Last Days of Intervention is a long and thoughtful essay in Foreign Affairs by Rory Stewart, one of the few British politicians who always talked sense about Afghanistan.

The insider
Blowing the Whistle on Facebook Is Just the First Step is a bracing piece by Maria Farrell in the Conversationalist about the Facebook whistleblower.

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