Press Release 31 Mar 2017

by Barry Heavey, Head of Life Sciences, IDA Ireland

How one man’s big bet on attracting inward investment for a then-early-stage biopharmaceutical manufacturing project in 1980s Ireland has paid back many times over.

Despite his unassuming nature, Sean Ward can lay claim to being one of the founding fathers of the burgeoning Irish biotech cluster, which has seen more than €10bn in new investment in the last ten years and is forecast to add 5,000 new jobs in the coming years in Ireland.

The basis for my assertion dates back to the time that Sean worked with IDA in the early 1980s when he and his team in IDA was instrumental in winning the first biotech investment from Schering Plough (now MSD) in 1983. Schering was so impressed with Sean, it hired him and he served in a variety of roles in the US and Ireland inclyding  director of manufacturing and strategic operations until he retired in 2000.

Trailblazer investment

The success of Schering’s investment in Brinny was hugely significant in establishing Ireland as a location of choice for biotech investment. It was a trailblazer investment at precisely the time when the biotech revolution was taking off globally and put Ireland firmly on the map in the sector. And the success of that initial investment created a reputation for Ireland that would result in massive additional investment from companies such as Pfizer, J&J, BMS, Shire, MSD, Regeneron, Amgen, Lilly, Alexion, Sanofi, GE and Allergan in subsequent decades.

Given Sean’s key role in both initially winning that investment while in IDA, and his role in making it a success in Schering, I was keen to talk to him to learn more about his experiences and insights. Here are some of his reflections and insights.

Irish ambition

Sean grew up in the 1950s, and he describes Ireland of the time as “bleak”, with a pervasive view that the country would not develop a strong industry base because it had no coal and iron deposits. He saw first hand how many schoolmates were effectively left with no choice but to emigrate. “It really used to break my heart because I knew guys who were bright, who, if they had been given the chance, were capable of a great deal more than that,” he says.

This experience shaped his thinking. After working with the Electricity Supply Board he moved to ICI in the UK and of this time he said “while I enjoyed my time in the UK and learned a huge amount there, I always felt that I would have liked to have a life that didn’t coerce me into being an emigrant”.  His role in ICI allowed him to return to Dublin in the early Seventies where he started to notice what the then Industrial Development Authority (now IDA) was doing to grow and attract industry in Ireland and applied for a job there.

“I took a 20% drop in pay and had to give up my company car to join the IDA,” he recalls, “but I was delighted – I was working with a bunch of people who shared my attitude about doing the best for our country. We worked very well as a team, calling each other up in the evenings with advice and guidance on opportunities and challenges that were arising as we dealt with companies visiting Ireland on site visits. We weren’t paid overtime nor were we paid for our phone calls but we felt compelled.”

Cultivating relationships

Ward was just a year in that role when he was selected to move to Chicago in 1973 with his family. “I was delighted to be in the front line, representing Ireland with clients. I felt I was pretty well equipped to cultivate relationships and I had some great wins during the six years I spent there,” he says. The companies he attracted to Ireland included Eli Lilly in Cork, ThermoKing in Galway and Bausch & Lomb in Waterford.

 In 1979, a vacancy came up for a promotion in Dublin to lead the IDA’s pharmaceutical and healthcare sector. He returned to find a significantly expanded organisation with almost 800 people. “It was an exciting time because one of my clients, Lilly, had just collaborated with an upstart biotech company called Genentech to develop the first biotech product – insulin. The biotech revolution was dependent on brain power, not coal or iron deposits. I knew Ireland had plenty of brain power and I had a missionary zeal about harnessing that to ensure we had a chance to partake in the biotech revolution.”

“The biotech revolution was dependent on brain power, not coal or iron deposits. I knew Ireland had plenty of brain power and I had a missionary zeal about harnessing that to ensure we had a chance to partake in the biotech revolution”

The catalyst

In 1982, Sean organised a meeting in IDA’s HQ on the theme of biotech and invited all the relevant academics from Irish Universities in Dublin, Cork and Galway. “I felt that biotech represented a huge opportunity and called the meeting to make the point that biotech sector was burgeoning and could be a catalyst for significant industrial development in Ireland,” he recalls.

 “My goal was to bring together the multidisciplinary skills that are essential for biotech – such as science, biochemistry and engineering – and ask the Government to commit £5-6 million to pull together expertise.”

Government funding

Despite a huge response to this initiative, it wasn’t entirely successful, primarily because of the amount of disagreement between the academics which Sean found quite disheartening. “Mistrust and mutual suspicion around the table was palpable and I even had to clarify that I wasn’t related to one of the academics!” Eventually, the Irish Government approved £4 million in biotech funding but as Sean describes it, this money “was split across every point of the compass which was all but useless”.

Sean is glad to hear that the Government has more recently committed substantive funding to biotech, and created a centre of excellence in the form of the national institute for Bioprocess research and Training (NIBRT).

Back to the early Eighties, Sean was targeting Schering Plough which had an active biotech R&D pipeline. “In particular, I built a relationship with John Nine who was the Senior VP in Schering Plough at the time. We were facing severe competition from alternative locations with Puerto Rico being particularly competitive at the time but we positioned Ireland as a location with an extremely talented and highly educated, English-speaking workforce. We also had to act quickly and decisively in offering grant support to win the project – concrete evidence of support from IDA – and win it we did.”

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