01 Apr Ireland’s life science sector targets future pandemics
Philip Noone, CEO, Aalto Bio Agents, details his company’s direct involvement with diagnosing COVID and its plans to support the fight against future pandemics
Can you give us an overview of Ireland’s life sciences sector?
In the pharmaceutical area, 18 of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies in the world are manufacturing in Ireland. The original reason for this was Ireland’s lowered corporate tax rate. However, companies have found the country to be a good source of highly educated employees. Many universities have catered life science degrees towards the pharmaceutical sector. Companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott Laboratories and Pfizer began manufacturing their product bases here, but now emerging pharmaceutical companies like WuXi AppTec have come into Ireland due to our high levels of education. Our pharmaceutical sector is strong and growing. In diagnostics, it was originally Boston Scientific in the west of the country that were here in the 1980s and 1990s. There were many spin out companies by executives who built their own cohorts. Now, there is a wide spread of life science companies that are developing innovative medical devices and diagnostic tests in Ireland.
Can you give us a brief history of Aalto Bio Agents and its growth trajectory?
Aalto Bio was founded by a family who had the idea to build critical raw materials for biological and diagnostic products. The company was traditionally focused on working with European-based diagnostic companies. Using a car manufacturing analogy, we are the engine builders. The car will not work without an engine. In the diagnostic sense, we build the critical raw materials that fires all diagnostic tests. Once our engine goes into their diagnostic test, it is in that test for 15-20 years or however long it stays on the market.
I tend to look at the diagnostic end first to see what tests the hospitals require. In 2016 we looked at emerging diseases. We saw that Zika, Chikungunya and dengue virus were starting to spread throughout the Americas with growing speed. We decided to build our first base raw materials around those. We launched our dengue product first, but there was not a huge uptake in the market, which was disappointing. We then launched our second critical raw materials for Zika virus in late 2015, and in 2016 there was an outbreak in Brazil. Our material became the go-to material; everybody wanted it. Pharmaceutical companies wanted it to develop vaccines. Diagnostic companies wanted it for building diagnostic tests. We hit a rich vein of business through the idea of tackling emerging diseases. From there we continued expanding mosquito-based diagnostic critical raw materials. We worked on the yellow fever and west Nile virus and were the go-to provider for diagnostic tests in that area. We then accelerated our capabilities to build critical raw materials for tick-borne diseases.
If you are predicting the next possible pandemic virus, there are around 500,000 in total that can jump from animal to human, but only around 780 that are close to the human food chain. We have locked down viruses that are likely to jump from animal to human and we are currently developing a portfolio to allow diagnostic companies to diagnose these diseases and develop vaccines faster. As a result of our library of future disease targets, business is growing 50-60 percent per month. We will probably double our turnover again this year. We are at the right place at the right time.
Is Ireland a good environment for start-ups?
Everyone in Ireland wants to be an entrepreneur. We have the genetic spirit to build and create things that nobody else has built. Start-up culture is ingrained in us. Ireland has a robust start-up platform. We have a government-backed organization called Enterprise Ireland that sponsors 80 start-up companies per year. They are the largest state-backed venture capitalist in Europe. This has led to many high-potential start-ups coming out of the Irish network for life sciences. The original pharmaceuticals sector has morphed into a healthy start-up network for biopharm, medical devices and diagnostic companies.
Aalto Bio was originally a start-up company. I bought the company in 2016 and we have since increased our turnover three- or four-fold. Companies like mine and others look at high-potential start-up units and use capital to invest and help them on their journey. Once you have gone through the start-up process, you know how it works and are willing to help small-capital companies not make classic mistakes such as following incorrect finance or tax advice or hiring the wrong people.
How did Aalto Bio Agents aid in combating the COVID-19 pandemic?
We did something that we have never done before. In March 2020, we got a phone call from the government saying they had a serious problem with COVID-19 testing in all major hospitals across the country as they did not have a critical raw material that encapsulates the virus and makes it safe for lab technicians to test for the virus. Traditionally, bio-tech products can take up to a year and a half to develop products, but they wanted it the next day. We built a brand new COVID-19 buffer to treat all samples in all hospitals in a week. This has never been done before. We tested it at the main virus laboratory here in Dublin. Once we knew the material worked, we had to scale it from the traditional 5-litre batches to maybe a hundred times the size in one go. By the end of May, we had a fully built, fully scaled and fully operational biotech product for COVID-19. All major hospitals are still using it routinely and many rapid tests you see on the market have Aalto-based proteins in them. This experience has changed the way we operate. We shortened the development process from 15 months to two months. While we are not going to produce every product within two months, it was extraordinary to see how the team operated under pressure. The feat tested the efficiency of all our processes. Many larger companies struggle to produce products as fast as we can. We locked on four or five scientists to develop the material rapidly without hindrance.
Aalto Bio came under the spotlight during the pandemic. People suddenly knew exactly what we were doing. As a result, there has been a steady line of private equity companies and venture capitalists wanting to buy us, but we are not selling. We are building a company and we are having fun doing it. Our experience shows how robust the life science industry is. Diseases will continue to present themselves and are spreading more due to the rise in travel. Both the life science area that is involved in research and the biopharmaceutical area that is involved in vaccination and treatment are seeing a rise of interest in terms of private investment and government funding.
How have international medical communities reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Experienced countries such as China and Singapore were able to spot the rise of the virus early on. The year before the pandemic began, they saw the numbers of casualty cases with respiratory disease increase in their emergency departments. Once they spotted it, they were quick to know they were dealing with a new respiratory virus that was not being detected. They locked down early because it was similar to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. In Europe we were unprepared to deal with the pandemic. People were moving freely in our communities and hospitals. It was not until the first real problems began to emerge from Italy that we knew we had a major problem.
What is Aalto Bio Agents doing to prevent future outbreaks?
We are using artificial intelligence tooling to data mine information and build our algorithm to forecast future pandemics. There was a Zika outbreak in 2015 to 2016 in Latin America. We know there is going to be another one in two to three years based on the forecasting that we have. We are currently identifying geographical areas with our artificial intelligence to know where the next outbreak will happen. We are trying to build an app that will look at future viruses and work out which among the 780 viruses are most likely to cause a pandemic in the next five to 10 years. From the research work that we have done, we have a fairly good idea what viruses may jump across in the next five to 10 years. We will develop diagnostic materials for the top 18. Once we develop those raw materials, we can be ready to put the product into diagnostic assays and rolled out in a matter of weeks as opposed to months. This is different than larger companies who tend to look at day-to-day or year-to-year chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. We are focused on emerging diseases.
What markets is Aalto Bio Agents looking at to precipitate growth?
As a European-based company there are different directions we can go. One of our fastest growing markets is the U.S. We put a business development team on the west coast due to interest from a lot of the household in vitro diagnostic companies. We are now looking at expanding into the east coast of the U.S. Additionally, Asian markets are moving away from their traditional manufacturers and looking at western-based technologies used in the U.S. and European markets. We have accessed the Japanese market, which has five of the largest bioscience companies in the world. We are directly working with two or three to develop future disease diagnostics. We are also moving into China through Enterprise Ireland. The U.S. is our number one focus market in terms of expansion, Japan is second and China third. While we still see activity in Europe, it is not the same level of growth as elsewhere.
What are the reasons for Aalto Bio Agents’ success?
Aalto Bio is on target to make six times the revenue compared to our 2015/16 financial year, which is quite extraordinary. We are adding a new biotech facility that is bigger than the one we have now. We still see ourselves as a start-up. The idea that you need to prove yourself and build innovative products keeps everyone on their toes. We do not sit on our hands and feel comfortable at any stage. There are more diseases to find solutions to. We are in business development. We are going to continue to grow, expand and add innovative products that nobody else has in the market.
We run a program whereby everyone benefits if the company does well. We have a share option program and at the end of the year profits are shared with employees. This has helped us as an organization to grow and expand. We want to hear everyone’s ideas. I would like Aalto Bio to become a household name in Europe, the U.S. and Asia as a company that is developing diagnostic solutions where no solutions are present, particularly in the emerging disease space. Our solutions touch hundreds of millions of people. If there is a new disease, we will find the solution first.