Why we must invest and innovate to future-proof Ireland’s medtech success
11 April 2017
Nigel Ackland, who spoke about ‘Life with a bionic arm’ last month in DIT Bolton St
For a small country, Ireland punches well above its weight when it comes to the strength of its biomedical sector. It is one of Europe’s largest medtech hotspots and is home to 300+ such companies, employing in excess of 25,000 people.
And yet, we cannot afford to sit back, pat ourselves on the back and rest easy in our complacency. Technology moves quickly in the biomedical field, with resulting life-changing developments regularly hitting the headlines. According to Jonathan Kidd, chair of Engineers Ireland’s Biomedical Engineering Division (BED) committee, engineers in this field must work to expand their professional and social network for learning and developing, or risk being left behind.
As part of its remit, the BED facilitates such opportunities for biomedical engineers. For example, as well as its regular programme of events for the year, the Division has just competed an additional programme that brings developments in the biomedical sector to the wider engineering community, entitled ‘Biomedical Engineering Higher Education Promotion Programme 2016-2017’.
This programme was organised and driven by BED committee members Dr Deasún O’Conchúir, Dr Suzanne O’Rourke and Mark Kelleher. It featured seven events with presentations from experts in the medtech field, taking place in different third-level institutes around the country.
Kidd singled out two particular highlights from the Higher Education Promotion Programme. The first featured a talk by Niamh Hynes, clinical lecturer in vascular and endovascular surgery at the Western Vascular Institute in Galway, entitled ‘A clinical and surgical perspective to medical device design’. Hosted by Dr Ted Vaughan, lecturer in mechanical and biomedical engineering at NUI Galway, this event was presented jointly with the West Region and attracted an audience of 90.
The second event featured a talk by Nigel Ackland. It was hosted by Robert Simpson, assistant head of DIT Bolton Street’s School of Mechanical and Design Engineering. The event was presented jointly with the Mechanical & Manufacturing Division during Engineers Week 2017 and it attracted an impressive audience of 117 people.
“I think the positive response to these events in terms of the attendance numbers is probably a reflection of the relevance of the topics to the audiences,” according to Kidd.
“The first event provided a natural setting for clinical and engineering people to come together to discuss topics of mutual interest, while the second event provided an opportunity for a recipient of an advanced prosthesis to share their experience of a life-changing medical device with an audience of engineering students, academics, and other interested individuals.”
Importance of networking in biomedical engineering
Kidd and the rest of the BED committee have learned some important lessons from the recently completed programme and will take these into account when organising next year’s events. For a start, timing is crucial when it comes to the academic timetable. “We’ve noted that it’s critical to start the planning and engagement process with the third-level institutions for the coming year before the end of the current academic year,” said Kidd.
“We also note the need to ensure that we’ve adequate representation in all of the relevant regions – in other words, we have to be present where there’s significant biomedical engineering industrial and academic activity.” As a result, the Higher Education Programme events reflect the strength of the biomedical-engineering industry in, for example, Sligo, Cork and Galway.
Kidd was keen to stress the other work done by the BED committee throughout the year, apart from organising the events calendar. It contributes to the Engineers Ireland forums with representation at Council and Sector Liaison meetings, as well as providing input to Engineers Ireland initiatives and discussions on the various topics that arise from time to time.
“One of our committee members, Dr David Hoey [associate professor in biomedical engineering within Trinity College Dublin’s Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering] is developing a project to facilitate collaboration between clinicians and engineers, utilising funds made available from the Sector Drawdown Fund,” he added.
In addition, the Division awards the Biomedical Engineering Division Research Medal every January. This event is combined with the Bioengineering in Ireland Annual Conference, which is run under a section of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland. “This has proved to be a very successful move, both raising the profile of Engineers Ireland within academia and raising the profile of biomedical engineering within Engineers Ireland,” said Kidd.
“Also in January of each year, the Division supports and jointly presents the annual Day of Shared Learning with the Irish Posture and Mobility Network.”
As well as raising the profile of biomedical engineering, these events facilitate networking opportunities for those working in the sector. The BED committee chair believes this is crucial, especially for young engineers working in the sector.
“Networking is actually really important because of the geographic spread of biomedical engineering activity throughout the island of Ireland,” Kidd opined, “and because of the ongoing need for engineers to relate and to collaborate with each other and with other disciplines and to share and disseminate knowledge and explore mutual interests.”
Collaborating with medicine, IT and mechanical engineering
By its very nature, biomedical engineering has close links with other areas – medicine, IT and mechanical engineering, to name but three. And yet, this country has never had a particularly strong tradition of mechanical engineering. So, why has the biomedical sector become such a success in Ireland?
“I think it’s due to our ability to provide not only mechanical-engineering talent, but also manufacturing engineers, electronics engineers, software engineers, as well as biomedical engineers and other relevant disciplines which are required by the sector,” said Kidd.
“A number of our biomedical-engineering colleagues have risen to the top of their organisations, or have become entrepreneurs in their sector, or have distinguished themselves in academia.”
Within the biomedical-engineering sector, Ireland is recognised as a world leader in the design and manufacture of medical devices, which accounts for roughly 8% of the country’s gross national product. We have a history and a track record in manufacturing orthopaedic implants and vascular intervention devices, to mention just two examples.
However, Kidd believes that engineers must continue to innovate to ensure continued success. “I think we could focus more on chronic disease, to develop safer and more effective procedures for screening, diagnosis and treatment,” he said. “We could also focus more on how to use technology to optimise our health service and, for example, reduce waiting lists and bottlenecks.
“In order to further develop our strengths in the biomedical sector, I think we should be developing and nurturing our indigenous sector in parallel with the larger projects being supported by foreign direct investment,” he continued.
“I think our indigenous sector provides a vital link with clinicians, who usually require solutions to medical problems in the short term. These solutions could be developed locally and, if appropriate, progressed to next stage with assistance from State agencies or perhaps in collaboration with interested investors.”
Investing in the future Irish medtech
To secure the success of the biomedical industry in Ireland, a secure pipeline of talented engineers in crucial. Are we investing enough in third-level biomedical engineering courses?
“I think the organisations who employ biomedical engineers will work with the third-level course providers to guide them on what’s necessary and important in terms of course academic content and the quality of graduate that they expect,” said the BED committee chair.
“The quality of teaching certainly needs to be of a high standard and needs to sustain the students throughout the duration of the course. I understand, however, that our third-level biomedical engineering courses are of a high standard and are keeping pace with scientific and technological developments.”
In such a forward-looking industry, developments happen apace and Ireland must be prepared in order to future-proof the biomedical sector, Kidd continued. “I think that the Internet of Things will have a positive impact on personal healthcare and that it’s already changing the game, so to speak.
“I think we’ll see more examples of connected health and technology being assistive to people to improve their mobility and independence. This will be disruptive and may produce a new branch of biomedical engineering, and will almost certainly require future biomedical engineers to be more ‘hybrid’ in how they think and act as compared with their contemporary practice.
“Ireland still has time to prepare for this exciting development, but preparations should be taking place now,” he concluded.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2017/04/11/future-proof-biomedical-engineering-ireland/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Nigel-Ackland.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Nigel-Ackland-300x300.jpgBiobiomedical,education,medical devices,medtech,NUI Galway