BioWorld International Correspondent

DUBLIN, Ireland - BioIreland 2006, the third biannual conference that aims to showcase Ireland as an international location for biotechnology development, opened here Monday with an address from the country's Taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, who underlined his administration's commitment to the field.

Ahern reminded delegates of the government's recently expanded strategy for research, its strengthened supports for capturing intellectual property and its incentives for attracting foreign biotechnology firms, as well as growing and nurturing indigenous firms. "We are determined that Ireland will continue to be a leading location for the key growth sectors, including biotechnology," he said.

Earlier this year, Ahern and his cabinet presented an outline of its science strategy for the next seven years, which entails a doubling of the existing effort, using 2005 as a baseline. (See BioWorld International, June 28, 2006.)

By 2013, said Maurice Treacy, head of the biotechnology directorate at the science funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the country should have a mature research system, comparable to those of the U.S. and the UK, and that would lead to the emergence of "invented here" technologies.

However, he said, the research system still is hampered by space constraints, by the dominance of undergraduate-based funding models for universities, by poor research mentoring and by high teaching loads for young faculty. "Ireland is still in its infancy in the research space," he said.

Technology transfer mechanisms also remain problematic, despite the recent commitment of additional resources to this area. "We don't believe academic researchers in Ireland are given clear enough direction from their management how of to interact with business," said Cormac Kilty, chairman of the Irish BioIndustry Association.

But Ireland also needs to address wider strategic questions about where it wants to compete, said Richard Seline, founder and principal of economic development consultancy New Economy Strategies LLC, who chaired the morning session of the opening day of the conference. "My sense about Ireland is that it's coasting - not aimlessly, but not efficiently or effectively," Seline told BioWorld International.

NES has participated in developing innovation strategies and roadmaps for several U.S. states, including Hawaii, Kansas and Kentucky, all of which face similar problems in identifying core strengths and putting in place the components needed to develop them further.

Because of the large population in the U.S. with Irish descent, the country is well positioned to host clinical trials. "This has not been completely exploited," he said. Translational research also is underdeveloped. Biotechnology, Seline said, offers a "smorgasbord" of 38 different opportunities. Ireland needs to prioritize five to seven niches, based on its core strengths, and to form global consortia in which to pursue those opportunities. "Instead of being reactive to the market, say that we want to become a dominant global player in this area," he said.

The country will never have enough cash for research to compete with larger centers, but it needs to define a compelling proposition to persuade smaller companies to relocate. "This is the time for Ireland to put its foot on the gas pedal," Seline said.

Edison Liu, executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore, said that the two countries could profit from cooperating more in biotechnology. "I think Ireland and Singapore are wasting their time competing against one another, which they have done assiduously," he told BioWorld International. "There's more complementarity than you would think," he added.

Liu developed links with Ireland while director of the division of clinical sciences at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. He was one of the architects of a cancer consortium, a three-way pact involving the NCI, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Ireland, he said, has a stronger orientation to the European Union than the UK, Singapore's traditional commercial partner, and could act as a portal for Singaporean firms entering the European market. Singapore, which has a "360 degree" view of Asia, similarly could act as an entry point for Irish firms seeking access to Asia's biggest markets.

The conference, which attracted delegates from Europe, North America and Asia, closed Tuesday.