By Rachel Shelly, Head of Medical Technologies, IDA Ireland
A new frontier for medtech is nanotechnology, which includes the thinnest material in existence, graphene, at one atom thick. Too small to be seen with the naked eye or even with conventional lab microscopes, nanomaterials are being used in some remarkable ways, such as ultra-small gold nanoparticles for tumor visualization and bio-imaging, a nanoparticle that can mimic HDLs -- the body's ‘good cholesterol’ -- and shrink plaque, and even minuscule particles that can replace needles to improve vaccine delivery, including for Covid-19.
Clearly an immense breakthrough, nanotechnology is on the precipice of supercharging a new realm of medtech products. Researchers are predicting what's being called the global nanomedicine market to reach $482.99 billion (US) by 2027 with a CAGR of 11.9% from 2020-2027. With so much potential for improving patient care and human health, nanomedicine is top of mind for many American medtech companies while, unfortunately, also being challenging to develop. Dealing with such tiny materials is quite problematic, costly, and talent is scarce. Here are three reasons why U.S. Medtech companies are looking overseas for their nanotech research:
1. Tap into the ecosystem of facilities and funding
According to Dr. Lorraine Byrne, executive director of the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) center in Dublin, Ireland, some of the sizeable groups of U.S.-based medtech companies with operations in Ireland gravitate to Ireland because of the ecosystem of facilities and funding. Some nanomedicine projects utilize the funding and facilities available through the Irish government and AMBER. For example, New Jersey-based Integra LifeSciences is teaming with AMBER on biomaterials that address peripheral nerve injuries, restoring the structural and functional properties of damaged or degenerated tissue via regenerated nerves.
Meanwhile, AMBER is working with Johnson & Johnson "in the orthopedic space around 3D bioprinting," explains Dr. Byrne, who previously spent 18 years working within Hewlett Packard’s imaging and printing division. “The program aims at printing 3D structures containing living biological cells and biomaterials for promoting bone and tissue regeneration."
US nanotech companies are particularly interested in IDA Ireland’s 25% R&D tax credit for RD&I expenditure for activities in a wide variety of science and technology fields, as well as grants and innovation supports for investors.
2. De-risk technology development
According to Dr. Lorcan Brennan, technologist in the Life Sciences Division of IDA Ireland, the government agency that works with overseas companies establishing operations there, researching new nanomaterials is an understandably imposing task. Whether based on pure substances or composites, such microscopic entities present development risks. "It's incredibly difficult to control materials at that scale," he explains. "You're talking about manipulating individual atoms or collections of atoms. The properties of the materials change when you start to reduce the size to smaller and smaller length scales. The material properties change and respond in ways that you might not anticipate."
As a result, fully outfitted labs staffed with skilled scientists have been the best location to develop nanomaterials, he states. Even then, "scaling new materials for industry applications has proven to be very difficult." Another challenge for domestic medtech companies is that in America, such research is typically funded by a company itself, which can be a significant undertaking in the case of early-stage research.
According to Dr. Byrne, "Doing high risk, early stage research in-house can be too costly. A company would have to place multiple bets on technologies that may or may not work because that is the nature of early stage research." Thus, there's a need for ways "to de-risk their early stage technology development cycle," she notes. It's this need that has convinced several U.S. medtech companies that already have manufacturing operations in Ireland to embark on nanomaterials research there as well, exploiting AMBER's "open innovation model," as Dr. Byrne calls it. Engagement with the academic sector reduces the risk for companies. The center has a cost-share model which allows for projects to be co-funded by the center and collaborating company or projects to be fully funded by the company. “We follow the national IP protocol, which means that if a company fully funds a project, the foreground IP will be licensed/assigned to them on completion of the project,” commented Dr. Byrne.
3. Talent, Talent, Talent
The demanding nature of nanotechnology requires a broad swath of expertise that can be challenging to find in one place. Materials science is multidisciplinary, and it’s important to bring together academic researchers from the fields of physic, chemistry, bioengineering and immunology, as well as specialists in microscopy and materials characterization to lend their knowledge to industry research challenges. While U.S. companies sometimes tap into the resources at top domestic university labs, such collaborations are typically one-off. "In the United States, companies might have a relationship with just one university," explains Dr. Byrne. "In Ireland, with AMBER there are eight universities affiliated with the center."
“U.S. companies will define a nanotechnology problem that they're interested in exploring, then we'll put together potential academics from our institutional partners who could potentially address that problem." The resources within these eight institutions include academics from all over the world who come to Ireland because of its reputation for investing in breakthrough research. Thus, it's not surprising that Ireland is competitive with the world's top universities, and that AMBER has won a multitude of prestigious European Research Council awards. With such assistance, American firms get a solid liftoff for major research that can then be brought into their company at a more mature stage, and is more likely to translate into a product. U.S. firms have access to the many trained graduates produced annually by the universities in Ireland, alongside access to transferable applied nanotechnology research in ICT, biophotonics and agritech.
For further information on how IDA Ireland can support international business expansion, download our Land and Expand Playbook, check out our High Growth Companies infographic, or visit idaireland.com.
Rachel Shelly is Head of Medical Technologies at IDA Ireland. In this role, she assists med tech companies to assess how Ireland can support their international growth strategies. Contact her at Rachel.Shelly@ida.ie
This story first appeared in Contract Pharma July 9, 2021.
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