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Taking the pulse of future healthcare: Ireland’s medtech superpowers

by | Jul 13, 2022

Ireland is very quietly a medtech superpower. The €13billion in medical technology products the country exports each year makes it Europe’s second biggest medtech exporter.

And unknown to most, Ireland is the world’s largest exporter of stents – tiny tubes that hold arteries open (€2billion a year) and contact lenses (€1billion a year). This puts Ireland in a good position to solve what is quickly emerging as one of the biggest problems in health care after Covid – there simply are not enough doctors and nurses.

“If you cannot measure, you cannot improve,” says Kerrill Thornhill, founder of MEG Support Tools. MEG offers a suite of digital tools to keep track of health quality across a hospital. Front-line workers can capture incidents and risk assessments. Hospital management staff have one platform to look at quality data in real time.

Recent new customers of theirs include eight NHS trusts (among them Kings College Hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ and the Royal Marsden), and healthcare groups as far away as Australia (Calvary Health) and Chile (UC Christus).

“I’m a big believer in the transformational power of mobile tech and want to put my energy into projects that bring benefit to society,” says Thornhill. A mechanical engineer and UCD graduate, he previously ran a services company building apps. “Some projects we did in gambling and other industries left me cold,” he says. But healthcare did not.

“I had worked on a couple of hospital jobs and working with people on the frontline is a great experience,” he adds. He met “wonderful people” in frontline roles across many healthcare organisations. Also the technical challenges fascinated him.

“I really enjoy the complexity of solving healthcare problems and seeing how mobile tech could free up frontline worker time.” Thornhill’s next direction for the company involves an insights module, using machine learning to predict and prevent harmful incidents by analysing trends in historical data. He says “as an engineer, I’m excited” by the problem.

Kerrill Thornhill and Peter Clifford of MEG Support Tools

AI for the medical masses

Ireland is buzzing with medtech. Another startup, Deciphex, uses artificial intelligence in a different direction to improve the speed of pathology services. Ageing populations mean pathology is facing increasing volume and complexity. There are insufficient pathologists to cope with the rising demand. Pathology is also big business, with $12billion spent globally each year on employing pathologists to diagnose
diseases.

So Deciphex, based at the DCU Invent campus in Glasnevin, uses artificial intelligence to improve turnaround time, speed up workflows and make diagnosis more accurate. It was founded by serial entrepreneur Donal O’Shea and just raised $11.5million in series B funding. At the end of last year, the company’s offerings were joined by Diagnexia, an online clinical pathology department run by Deciphex that provides remote specialist clinical pathologists, globally and on demand.

And O’Shea’s is far from the only Irish company wading into pathology. Dublin-based HiberGene Diagnostics has been developing molecular diagnostics for two potentially fatal diseases: Meningococcal and Group B Streptococcus. Meningitis can kill in hours, but the current way to identify an infection positively takes two days. Symptoms might not be obvious until the disease is dangerously advanced.

This means doctors use clinical judgement to decide whether to administer antibiotics to someone who might, or might not, have the rare but serious bacterial form of the disease. Brendan Farrell, its chief executive, worked in the diagnostics industry for 30 years before founding the company, which uses a Lamp (Loop mediated isothermal amplification) test that takes in blood, spinal fluid, or nasal swab samples and provides results in under 60 minutes.

Ireland’s medtech credentials puts it in a good position to solve what is quickly emerging as one of the biggest problems in health care after Covid – there simply are not enough doctors and nurses.

Transcription worth a pound of cure

Meanwhile another Irish company, T-Pro, uses AI in a different direction, to power a cloud-based transcription software business aimed at the medical sector. T-Pro also has been working to use machine learning to cut down the amount of human involvement necessary to produce finished medical documents, freeing up time for clinicians to see patients. Its chief executive Jonathan Larbey also has deep pockets to spend on acquisitions, with between €50-€60million available to build the company through M&A in the next three to four years.

And Mark Fleming’s Limerick-based company Fleming Medical has been expanding its wares to wearables. Previously Fleming had worked with NUI Galway, the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, and Cork’s Tyndall Institute to roll out smart dressing. “Smart dressing” because it offers a sensor module to fit within a dressing and monitor the temperature, moisture and pH of a patient’s wound, alerting medical staff to the possible presence of infection.

Removing a dressing to inspect a wound takes up nursing time and can also slow a wound from healing. Adding to its wearables offerings, in April Fleming announced an ovulation tracker, consisting of an adhesive temperature patch with sensor technology and a mobile app. The company also donated seven pallets of medical supplies to Ukraine in March.

With over 300 medtech companies in Ireland, and over 40,000 people working in the sector, look out for more stories like MEG, Deciphex, T-Pro, and the others. In a tiny country which hosts an outsized amount of world pharmaceutical and tech leaders, as well as a buzzing homegrown founder scene, these startups are something an upstart Ireland seems to be astonishingly good at turning out.

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