01 Sep Northern Ireland produces healthcare research and products that can change the world
Irwin Armstrong, CEO, CIGA Healthcare, has developed technologies of the utmost relevance during a pandemic where the fight again airborne pathogens is paramount. The are now poised to succed on a monumental scale.
CIGA Healthcare is one of the fairly recent success stories in Northern Ireland’s life science industry. The company was established 16 years ago in 2005 and is specialized in the development and supply of a wide range of over the counter and professional tests to pharmacy outlets and health services. To begin, could you give us a rapid overview of CIGA Healthcare, what have been the main factors behind its success, and how does it stand out on the market today?
CIGA Healthcare was founded in 2005 when the diagnostics industry was still in its infancy. For example, pregnancy tests, as we know them today, only came into being in the 1980s. Over the last 15 years we have seen a major increase in the quality and range of diagnostics. We supply one device called the Finecare machine which enables a range of diagnostic tests to be done in a doctor’s surgery, A&E or hospital ward. This would previously have to had to be done in a big laboratory with expensive machinery.
The trend now is for diagnostics at the point of care, where the test is conducted beside the patient and you get an instant result within 15 minutes. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow for the lab, you’re getting results immediately. That is changing how diagnostics are being conducted, with the accuracy of these tests having changed dramatically.
Everybody wants two key features in a diagnostic test today: the first is sensitivity, which is the ability for a test to correctly identify those with the medical condition. A good score would have been considered to be 60 percent in the past, whereas now we are looking at 95 to 98 percent sensitivity. The other aspect is specificity, which is the ability to correctly identify those without the disease. For instance, if you carried out a pregnancy test and were told you are pregnant but you aren’t, that is the specificity. We are now looking in the high 90s of accuracy in pregnancy testing. In Northern Ireland we are way ahead of most of the world in percentage terms in diagnostics. We have some very large diagnostic companies in both the lab and the point of care.
CIGA Healthcare started in the OTC (over the counter) arena, i.e., supplying major pharmacies, and then we diversified into the professional sector, supplying healthcare, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK and the Health Service Executive in Ireland. We distribute both OTC and professional tests around the world. We are working on our R&D at the moment developing new tests. We have just moved very recently into the veterinary sector, where we are providing animal diagnostics, in addition to human diagnostics, so it’s a continual development. Within Northern Ireland we have two very good universities with high capacity and good medical research and development. We work closely with Ulster University, where I sit on the board of the ‘Connected Health Innovation Centre,’ which is an R&D organization. They bring in specialist scientists to work on the projects that companies couldn’t afford to do themselves. The environment here is very much geared towards new technologies. A few years ago, I sat on a government committee, the Matrix project, where we looked at all the healthcare implications or trauma. Because of the Troubles here, Northern Ireland is very much a world leader in dealing with people who have had trauma and have been injured in accidents: we had lots of patients to develop the technologies on. The conclusion of that particular Matrix survey was that diagnostics overarched all of the other sectors of the industry, because everything being investigated starts by diagnosing what’s wrong with the patient. If healthcare specialists want to diagnose what’s wrong in the first place they need diagnostics—it doesn’t matter whether it’s in cancer or trauma or ophthalmology, you’ve got to find the problem to solve it. There is a major concentration within Northern Ireland looking at healthcare and particularly the diagnostic side of it. That’s how CIGA has evolved.
Just recently CIGA Healthcare announced the launch of PlasmaGuard, a revolutionary, ceiling-mounted air purification device which claims to eradicate 99.9% of pathogens, including viruses, bacteria and molds. Can you tell me more about this product launch, how important is it for the company and, more globally speaking, how do your products and advances help against the specific COVID pandemic and other sorts of infections?
This is a unit inserted in regular air conditioning systems. It can also operate as a standalone unit. It distributes ions into the atmosphere which connect to viruses and pathogens and stop them from reproducing. It is an opportunity to clear what’s known as ‘sick office syndrome,’ which is in new buildings that don’t have opening windows and that rely totally on air conditioning and filtration, which are not very effective, as they do not get small particles. If you flooded a room with ions which don’t harm animals or plants or anything organic, it will deactivate anything that’s in the atmosphere, which is where most COVID infections take place. It also cleans the surfaces because anywhere the ions go, they attach themselves to the particular pathogen, whatever it happens to be. For example, if you have an office block, you can maintain clean air in the office block and it will help companies reduce their sickness, because a cold or a flu or any other viruses spread will be greatly reduced. Your customers will know that they’re coming into an atmosphere where they’re not going to catch something from the air or the table.
We are looking at how you could apply this technology on aircraft also. In an aircraft you’re in a plane for several hours with another 100, 200 or 300 people. The air purification systems are not that good at removing viruses and bacteria. We’re looking at how you can actually keep the air on an aircraft clean.
There are a great number of uses for this particular product. It is far in advance of everything else in the market. The product was developed in America and it has been successfully installed in many venues and locations. We are working on some studies in the U.K. One of the things we find in this world, whether it’s in diagnostics or cleaning air, scientists don’t believe information from other countries. They want to see it done in their country first. So, despite the fact that there has been research in the U.S., we’re having to do more research locally within the UK to prove that it works here as well.
When it comes to your research and development which other flagship project or specific areas are you involved in as part of your R&D efforts?
We are currently working on several separate projects. One of them is in the veterinary field, diagnosing dairy cows’ milk. We’re looking at the contents of the milk and infections and all other kinds of things there. Another one is in the fertility area, where we are introducing types of pregnancy tests which will give more comprehensive results and help to women who become pregnant. We are using a digital and knowledge, AI-based type of approach. For all these projects we are into the area of artificial intelligence, looking at results and then computing to get the best data and approve the specificity and sensitivity of what we’re doing.
We work very closely with our local universities, but we also have in our international supply chain some good research partners in the Far East who have got large labs. They have got thousands of engineers and chemists that we could never afford here. China, namely, is leading the research and development in the new technologies. I’ve been working with China since the early 90’s. They have been doing some tremendous catch-up and have impressive capacities today.
In 2012 you opened CIGA healthcare in the U.S., as part of your expansion. How important is the US market is for your company today? What does it represent? What are your plans over there and how are you working on expanding your company and brand there?
We went out to the U.S. nine years ago and for many years we found it very difficult to get accepted in the American market. Part of the reason was that so many U.K. companies have gone to America and completely failed. We did the same at first, but we’re now a supplier to Walmart, for example. We eventually broke through in those markets and we’re now expanding considerably, particularly in Canada. We’re doing a lot of good things there, but it is a very difficult market to access. The scale of America is very different to what we are accustomed to and the sheer investment that it takes is much larger. Walgreens or Walmart for example have distribution centers all over America, but in the U.K., if you supply a major company, you’re shipping to one central warehouse. In America, you can be shipping to 20 warehouses, the whole investment in infrastructure need is much greater. The access that you need to create is much greater.
I have no regrets about going to the U.S., I just wish we had managed to succeed an awful lot quicker. It took a long time and a lot of investment to start generating a profit. We could have walked away many times, but we didn’t, we stayed, and when we talk to the Walgreen and Walmart people, they understand that we’re here to stay. We won’t let them down by disappearing. We’re not leaving, we’re expanding in America. We are also moving into South America. We have signed a few big contracts. It’s not only the U.S. market or Canadian market, but also reaching down to South America.
You are still a family-owned company. How do you see the future growth and what is your development strategy for short and midterm? Do you have any plans to open your capital, for example, or do you have any plans for acquisitions or for any new sorts of partnerships to accelerate your development?
We are currently involved in an organization called the UK RTC, the UK rapid test consortium, which is a group of four diagnostic companies which the government formed. We’ve been working closely with them, marketing the products around the world. That is interesting because we didn’t work with the other three companies before. It’s a very new thing for all of us. We’re also doing projects with one of the companies outside of the consortium, though we are in no way competing with them. We’re looking at an interesting future.
In the next few years, we will be seeking a CEO for the company, but the timing has not been decided. There comes a time at any company when the type of management required is not that which the founder can bring. Companies reach a stage where they need to become a lot more corporate, a lot more organized and have a lot more investment. We are in a tradition of entrepreneurial spirit, we take risks, we can do because we’re the owners of the company. We have a different mindset, and there comes a stage when I probably would hold back the growth of the company, instead of promote it, by not doing the things that we need to do as a large corporation.
Northern Ireland has a fast-growing life science sector that has produced some world-class companies already competing in the global stage. Having spent over 15 years building your company, what are your views on Northern Ireland’s momentum in life sciences? How would you rate the region’s talent and research and development capacities?
Northern Ireland, as part of the U.K., benefits from a massive amount of R&D investment funds. I think our bigger problem is getting enough companies to invest more and use those facilities. There are some very, very good companies who are involved in R&D, but not enough. I think the government needs to act upon the plans that we looked at several years ago and start to pick out the sectors where growth is evident. Applied life sciences is one of them.
The current pandemic that has opened a completely new market. Doctor and General Practitioners (GPs) are no longer directly aligned with the patient, which has triggered the remote development of new diagnostics. The growth in the purchases of blood pressure monitors, which is a big area for us, has grown exponentially in the last year because people are not going to their doctor to get their blood pressure. They are doing tests at home for their blood glucose, their temperature, their urine analysis, and other areas, and transmitting the results back to the doctor through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. There’s a whole new industry growing up to service that change and to manage in how doctors and patients relate to each other.
My vision for the next 10 years is that every home will have a little box and everyone in the family will do a test once a month, using blood, urine or saliva or a mixture of all three, to pick up any abnormalities at the very early stages. This will allow them to get treated before a condition develops into a problem. The technology for most of that is in place today. It just needs to be concentrated into one little unit that you can set on your kitchen table. We need to go to that prevention and early treatment model. I’m pushing our partners in the Far East to see if I can get a unit developed that will allow that to happen and then get the government to pay for it and put one on every house. That is the future of medicine because we cannot afford to continue with more and more treatments for people. The resources just do not exist to treat everything for everybody in a late stage. If you catch it early, then you’re in a much better position to fix it without large expenditure. Within Northern Ireland we have the background and the research personnel who can certainly contribute to that.
What is your final message to our readers?
Northern Ireland has an enviable history of economic development, of research and development. We have got the people here who are capable of working and leading the world in many fields. Any company that wants to come here will not be disappointed by the caliber of people we have here. We are highly competitive in the global life science space.