Guest article: Disrupting the paradigm for businesses in Life Sciences

By Business & Finance
22 February 2019

From AI to VR to cobots, disruptive technology is becoming more visible in the workplace – what does that mean for businesses?

Disruptive technology innovation occurs at the point of convergence of science and technology, leading to the development of new products or processes, and can often prompt the emergence of new business models. These disruptive technologies typically have the potential to significantly alter the way in which markets function and enable transformation in the way that businesses operate. Twenty-seven disruptive technology projects, across the health, food, ICT and manufacturing sectors in Ireland, recently received a boost to their 2019 finances following approval for innovation funding under the Project Ireland 2040 plan.

Funding disruptive technology

The fund in question is the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF) run by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, with administrative support from Enterprise Ireland. At €500 million this new fund is one of four announced in the National Development Plan 2018-2027 and is a most welcome development for the Irish research community, SME sector and high potential new start-ups.

€75 million in innovation funding

The first 27 successful projects will receive approximately €75 million in funding over three years up to 2021, and all meet the key selection criteria of being collaborative enterprise-driven partnerships incorporating research partners and SMEs that will ‘develop, deploy and commercialise disruptive technologies to transform’ their chosen business sector’. It proved to be a good day for the Irish life sciences sector, with almost half of the funding going to a variety of innovative projects including wearable health-tech, next generation cell therapies, and 3-D printing for medical devices.

The awards highlight how, over the coming years, disruptive technology is set to become increasingly visible across the life sciences sector. In particular, there is recent evidence of increasing applications of both virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and even cobots.

Cobots for SMEs

Cobots (collaborative robots) are the latest generation of robotic systems that are intended to work alongside humans within a shared workspace. They are ideally suited to take on arduous or repetitive tasks, thereby reducing potential incidents and human error in manufacturing or laboratory settings. With costs as low as €20,000, cobots help SMEs to compete by enabling agile, intelligent and efficient production. Significantly, cobots are not intended to replace humans but rather to free them up to focus on higher order tasks such as decision-making and troubleshooting.

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets are now commonplace in the gaming arena but applications in the life science sector have been shown to add real value within the training and learning environments. VR is particularly useful when training personnel to take on highly complex skills and techniques necessary to support, say, the aseptic or sterile manufacture of medicines.

Augmented Reality glasses or headsets are designed to support workers in real-time while they undertake a complex task. Providing a range of audio and visual cues and aids, AR devices guide the worker through the task, using touch or voice commands to enable the worker to call for the specific support needed at that time it is required.

Disrupting the health industry

Artificial Intelligence offers many opportunities for greater speed and effectiveness in data analysis, insight-building and decision support right across the life science supply chain. Nowhere is this more needed than in the current clinical trials paradigm, where technology has not advanced since the 1990s and is burdened by bureaucracy, a variety of regulatory environments, unstructured data sets, siloed health records and increasing privacy and data security laws. New AI applications within the clinical trials area are coming through each day cross the spectrum from greater engagement with patients, real-time knowledge management driving deeper insights from the data, enabling faster product development lifecycles.

Other sectors have been embracing these and other disruptive technologies such as data analytics, Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain under the banner of Industry 4.0 for the past decade. Industry 4.0, commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, refers to the current trend of enhanced automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. Within the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors, however, adoption rates of these approaches have lagged behind, possibly due to the restrictive regulatory environment or the sheer size and scale of many global pharmaceutical and medical device companies. But newer, more agile life sciences start-ups are now bucking this trend, influencing the established industry landscape and disrupting the competition.

Ireland at the centre of disruptive tech

Ireland, recognised as a significant force in the global biopharmaceutical and medtech industries, has played an important role as a center of development, manufacturing and supply for the global life science sector for over 50 years. Coupled with Ireland’s more recent placement within the global IT landscape, we are now presented with a real opportunity to leverage these twin scientific and technology skillsets and lead the charge in this wave of disruption. Already there are good examples of this in action. Killian O’Driscoll, Director of Projects at the National Institute For Bioprocessing Research & Training (NIBRT) believes that Industry 4.0 provides an opportunity to fundamentally increase the efficiencies of advanced biopharma manufacturing. NIBRT is partnering closely with Boston Consulting Group to establish an Industry 4.0 ‘digital demonstrator’ at its facility, which O’Driscoll says “will provide proof-of-concept for the deployment of these 4.0 technologies (many developed by Irish SMEs) in the highly regulated biopharma sector.”

Initiatives such as the biopharma ‘digital demonstrator’ will establish a lighthouse for the Irish biopharma sector, showing how Industry 4.0 technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, digitalization, advanced automation and robotics can optimize advanced manufacturing even within a highly regulated environment. As biopharma and medtech manufacturing becomes increasingly globalised, complex and more highly regulated, the Irish life sciences sector must seize the opportunities to leverage its network of academic, industrial and state supports to embrace the disruption. Smarter and faster adoption of these disruptive Industry 4.0 technologies can transform the entire life science value chain, increasing agility and quality to deliver life-saving therapies to patients worldwide.

Nuala Calnan is the founder of BioPharm Excel, an Irish owned operation that drives patient safety innovation and new ways of thinking in the BioPharma and MedTech industries through the delivery of training, consultancy and research. Nuala is also an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Pharmaceutical Regulatory Science Team (PRST) at TU Dublin.