DUBLIN, Ireland - The development of the Irish biotechnology sector is seriously hampered by a lack of cash. That was the main message to emerge from the first plenary meeting of the Irish Bioindustry Association (IBIA), held in Dublin last week.

Successive delegates spoke of the lack of venture finance and basic research funding to support the establishment of start-up companies. “We're not at the races,“ said David McConnell, head of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. “Until we recognize that this [support for basic research] is the piece of the jigsaw that's missing, I think we are not facing up to reality.“ He cited Denmark as a role model for the provision of strong public support of basic research.

Jim Ryan, director of the government-backed biotechnology research organization BioResearch Ireland, said no “belief in the state system [exists for] research and development as a mechanism for economic development.“ The current level of funding, about IEP3 million (US$4.4 million) to IEP4 million for life sciences research, is “an embarrassment, quite frankly,“ Ryan said.

Frank Kenny, of the Dublin-based venture capital fund Delta Partners, said that Irish funds currently manage combined assets of around IEP300 million, about half of which has already been invested. “Very little of this is going to biotechnology,“ he said. Delta Partners, a broadly based technology fund, has invested in the diagnostics firm Biotrin, of Dublin, and in the U.K. start-up Pharmagene. It has several other biotechnology deals in the pipeline, but the other local funds have little experience in the sector and are averse to both the level of risk and the timeliness associated with biotechnology investments.

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Enterprise Ireland (formerly Forbairt), the state agency that supports indigenous industrial development, offers support through direct grants and through equity. It has positions in both Biotrin, which has raised IEP13.3 million in three financing rounds, and the clinical research services firm Icon plc, of Dublin, which netted US$50 million in an initial public offering on Nasdaq earlier this year.

Peter Daly, CEO of Eirx, an early stage biotechnology company, said the agency is prevented by legislation from taking a lead in funding start-up companies. “The German model should be implemented fairly quickly in this country,“ he said, referring to the mixture of public and private money that has in the past couple of years stimulated the rapid emergence of a raft of biotech start-ups in Germany. The alternative is that Irish start-up projects will have to seek funding from U.K. funds, he said.

Despite the pessimism, however, last week's meeting represented the first public step toward the establishment of a coherent biotechnology sector within the country. Until now, individual companies had pursued their own separate development paths, but there had been little concerted effort in formulating a national policy for the sector as a whole.

Several initiatives are currently under way to address this shortfall. McConnell heads up a 30-person panel on health and life sciences, which is part of a national technology foresight exercise being conducted by the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation. This group is due to report on Nov. 11.

The IBIA, Enterprise Ireland and Forfas, the government's science and technology policy advisory body, are engaged in a separate initiative, which Tony Shiels, of Enterprise Ireland, said will deliver “a short, punchy policy definition study.“ *