Foreign direct investment (FDI) has been a cornerstone of Irish economic policy since the country’s investment agency IDA Ireland launched in 1949, but Ireland’s ties with the life science industry seem to be going from strength to strength.

According to IDA Ireland, over 300 medtech companies are now operating in the country and medtech exports from Ireland are worth more than €13bn ($14bn) a year – 8% of the country’s total exports.

The value proposition for international companies is clear: a low corporate tax rate environment and access to a skilled workforce and the European Union.

Earlier this year, diabetes device maker DexCom arrived in Ireland, selecting Galway as the location for its first European manufacturing site. The new facility represents a €300m investment over five years and is expected to bring up to 1,000 high-skilled jobs to the region.

“We hope Dexcom will be here for many years to come,” John Nugent, head of medical technologies at IDA Ireland told Medical Device Network.

“There is increased competition in the FDI space, so it was a huge vote of confidence in our medtech cluster that they chose the West of Ireland for their first European facility. 14 of the top 15 medical technology companies call Ireland home and we have a strong relationship with all of them.”

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And with growing competition from FDI hot spots such as Eastern Europe, Ireland needs to keep up with the competition. According to Nugent, IDA’s strategy focuses on Ireland’s talent pool, global connectivity, and commitment to sustainability efforts.

“Sustainability is very big in life sciences, so we always look for ways to support companies’ green agendas,” he explained. “In 2023 alone, IDA Ireland approved 25 sustainability projects focused on carbon abatement and building Ireland’s green economy and we hope this year there will be even more.”

Biotech boom

One of the country’s leading success stories is Regeneron, which has earned recognition as one of the Best Workplaces in Ireland. Originally headquartered in New York City, Regeneron acquired a former Dell computer facility in Limerick in April 2014 for its inaugural site outside the United States. Since then, the company has invested over $1bn to establish the largest biologics manufacturing facility in Ireland.

The success of the Limerick site is a key factor to why pharma giant Eli & Lilly has decided to become a neighbour and build a new $1bn biologics manufacturing facility in the region.

The 47,400sqm plant will consist of a four-storey manufacturing building and around 2,000 people are currently employed in the site’s construction phase. Recruitment is also underway for the 300 permanent jobs the site will employ once fully operational in the next three years.

“Eli Lilly wouldn’t be here if we weren’t here,” Regeneron’s senior vice president for industrial operations and product supply Niall O’Leary told Medical Device Network.

“Regeneron’s decision to come to Limerick all those years ago was strategic as it allowed us to develop relationships with the local universities and recruit the best talent. Add to that the affordable house prices in Limerick, and the Atlantic Ocean on our doorstep – we are attracting the best people and making a statement that is changing the landscape here.”

MeiraGTX: Ireland’s first CGT facility

Smaller biotechs are also tapping into Ireland’s potential. The arrival of New York-based cell and gene therapy company MeiraGTx was a key milestone for Irish manufacturing. The company opened a new 150,000-sqft (14,000sqm) plant in September 2022 in a ceremony that included then-Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin and is the first in Ireland capable of commercial-scale gene therapy manufacturing.

Although MeiraGTx is a clinical-stage company, the biotech opted to build a site with end-to-end manufacturing capabilities. The site includes three facilities that are built to be flexible and scalable for clinical and commercial viral vector production. Another site is set up for the manufacture of plasmid DNA which performs biochemical quality control testing and can be used for manufacturing services to potential collaborators.

According to MeiraGTx, the site will help to cut months,or even years off the time to manufacture cell and gene therapy products. During a tour of the Shannon facility, site operations director Greg Simmonds told Medical Device Network why the company chose Shannon.

“IDA Ireland made a strong case to do business in Ireland,” he explained.

“As a clinical-stage company, we wanted a place where we can scale and manufacture multiple things at the same time. Having a site of this size really provides us with the flexibility to increase the capacity of our production. We were also very impressed at the links that Shannon has to other international cities and MeiraGTX hubs such as London and New York City.”

According to Simmonds, the company saw an opportunity to pioneer a new wave of biotech R&D in Ireland. “The West of Ireland is certainly experiencing a boom and it felt like the ideal time to come here and lead this new era of innovation,” he added.

DMI Ireland: digitalising manufacturing

Creating innovative medical products requires talent and skills and for many companies across Ireland’s life science ecosystem, future-proofing their operations has become a major concern. According to research by IDA Ireland, it is estimated that 133,000 skilled scientific and technical workers will be needed across the next decade, 90,000 of which will be in medtech, particularly R&D and manufacturing.

And as digitalisation hits the industry, there is a greater demand for new digital skills.

“Upskilling is a priority, so we work closely with Ireland’s educational institutions to ensure we are disrupting the education system and creating the next generation of world-class researchers and manufacturers,” said Nugent.

Digital Manufacturing Ireland (DMI), a newly established national centre launched by the Irish government in 2023 is designed to assist manufacturers with adopting digital technologies and adapting their supply chains and operations.

According to DMI CEO Domhnall Carroll, the centre is committed to working with all manufacturers in Ireland regardless of their technological maturity.

“Since its launch in early 2023, DMI has observed a growing demand for swift and profound collaboration within the ecosystem,” he said. “In response, we are establishing Centres of Excellence aimed at expediting the widespread adoption of transformative technologies and practices within manufacturing sites.”

But as companies navigate the factories of the future, Ireland may need to tap into talent from other sectors to help drive improvement.

“The ecosystem in Ireland is a distinct advantage to us when compared to locations around the world that don’t necessarily have that close collaboration or that network that they can rely on,” said Mark Hennessy, executive director of manufacturing at Bausch and Lomb.

“In Ireland, companies are always looking at different and better ways to do things and you can see what other companies are doing that’s having a positive impact on their operations.”

The global economic slowdown in 2023 impacted Ireland but the domestic economy has shown resilience. In April 2024, Ireland welcomed its youngest-ever Prime Minister, Simon Harris, and the country’s economy is expected to grow by 1.2% and 3.6% in 2024 and 2025 respectively.

“As Taoiseach (prime minister), I want to bring new ideas, a new energy, and a new empathy to public life,” Harris enthused in his first speech. “Now is an opportune time to build a new social contract – one which renews our promise as a Republic. To create equality of opportunity. To support those who need the state the most. To protect our hard-earned economic success. To use its benefits to deliver tangible outcomes to society.”

And with less than a year to go until Ireland’s next general election, the Irish government will continue to rely on FDI as a central pillar to its economic model, with the life science industry billed as one of the country’s biggest priorities.

“We want to be the go-to partner for the industry,” said Nugent. “Ireland is a global centre for life sciences, and we will continue to create an environment where businesses can thrive.”