A €10m investment in R&D at Cook Medical’s Limerick plant “is the future of the company”, executive vice-president Bill Doherty has said after giving Minister Richard Bruton a tour of the medical device maker’s new innovation centre at Plassey.
“This investment will hopefully provide the jobs of the future. The products that will be developed here will be the products that we will be manufacturing in Limerick in three, five and 10 years time so it is very significant,” Mr Doherty said.
Cook in Limerick has grown from a modest distribution centre in the early 1990s to one of the US corporation’s key global sites in the development and manufacture of non-invasive surgical equipment. It has also established itself as one of Limerick’s major employers, with 800 on the payroll.
The company’s evolution made it a model for foreign investment in Ireland, said Minister Bruton.
“It started with just labelling and distribution and now it has evolved right through manufacturing, shared services to ultimately this innovation centre. It is a great story of development, of deepening roots and that has been built by the quality of staff they have had access to,” he said.
“I want to congratulate Cook on their investment in the innovation centre. As you know in the medical devices industry the key is the next product line and the growth in new ideas. Here we have a state-of-the-art centre where their own engineering staff can collaborate with medical experts to ensure that the devices of the future can be created in Limerick and manufactured in Limerick.”
While R&D has long been part of the Limerick operation, the new centre will allow its engineers collaborate with medical professionals in a customised space using the very latest equipment and technology.
While the surroundings were new, the innovation centre was true to Cook’s roots in working with doctors to bring new products to market Mr Doherty said. When Dr Charles Dotter performed the world’s first percutaneous angioplasty - saving the leg of his elderly patient - in 1964, he had performed the pioneering surgery with Cook products.
“Our best ideas have come from listening to physicians who are always seeking less invasive ways to treat patients. This approach to product development was established from the beginning with Dr Dotter and it continues today. Our process always starts with listening to doctors’ needs, “ he said.
Dr Jan Werner Poley, head of endoscopy at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, said he had always received a sympathetic ear from Cook engineers in Limerick as they set about developing new products. That collaboration had resulted in products – such as a spray and mechanism to staunch gastrointestinal bleeding – which were already used on patients and others in development, such as a biopsy needle which was about to go into trials in the USA.
While he paid tribute to the innovators at Cook, Dr Poley also spoke positively about the Limerick workforce who put those ideas into practice on the factory floor.
“I was very impressed to see how the devices we use every day were all crafted by manual labour. It was amazing to see scores of diligent women - and hardly any men by the way - make all these devices by hand.
“Naively perhaps, I always thought that the blue plastic stents for biliary use we use every day would be made by one big machine with a big blue chunk of plastic on one end with stents shooting out on the other end. But it turned out to be a little bit more complicated than that,” Dr Poley said. While it was the hope that the innovation centre would come up with the products of the future, Mr Doherty said the medical devices sector –which employs 25,000 people in Ireland – had serious concerns about the current revision of the EU directive on the industry and how it could serve to stymie innovation.
Currently before the Council of Ministers, the amended regulations, if enacted in their current form, could “slow down the pathway for devices to market”, Mr Doherty said.
“In Europe we have traditionally been able to put products on the market for patients three years before the US or Japan, which means European patients get the latest technologies first.
“We understand that patient safety is a huge issue and I think a lot of these regulations are being driven in the wake of the PIP scandal, the breast implant scandal in France. But there is a worry that we could go overboard.”
The less centralised regulatory regime in Europe was one which Minister Bruton acknowledged gave Irish companies “a competitive edge” over rivals elsewhere.
“We need to strike a balance which obviously has patient safety at its core but delivers a regulatory system that is proportionate and easy to manage for innovative companies like Cook,” said the minister.