Despite being a small country of 3 million people, Wales has a thriving life sciences industry. More than 300 health innovation and life sciences companies have set up business in Wales, covering every aspect - from pharmaceuticals and biotech, to cell and gene therapy and to inventions in therapeutic care and diagnostics. In addition, engineering firms have been turning their expertise to health-related capabilities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a push by companies in Wales to develop innovative respiratory devices, such as ventilators that could be easily assembled and built. One such invention is a simple, robust ventilator designed by a senior doctor from Glangwili Hospital in Carmarthen with the help of a Welsh engineering firm. The machine has a dual function: it helps patients to breathe while also cleaning a room of viral particles.
Several other Covid-19-related innovations have come out of Menai Science Park in Gaerwen on Anglesey, which brings together many small scientific companies focused on innovation.
A history of invention
While these examples demonstrate the agility of local small businesses, innovation in Wales well predates the pandemic.
Protherics, now part of the Boston Scientific Group International, began as a small specialty business purifying antidotes for rattlesnake bites. The antibodies would be grown in sheep in New Zealand then the serum would be shipped to Wales, where it was purified, before being shipped to the United States for processing as an antidote vaccine. While today as BTG it is a huge company with a vast portfolio of products, it still maintains a base in rural Wales, employing locals and investing in developing different skill sets.
The Wales Cancer Bank (WCB), based at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, is one of Europe’s most widely used biobanks. The WCB supports leading researchers by supplying tumour, blood and tissue of patients to cancer researchers. Their aim is to aid researchers in developing a better variety of treatments that can be specific to groups of patients and their tumours, while also encouraging quicker diagnosis.
Another innovative Wales-based business technology start-up is Forth, which enables people to manage their own health using an app to track various biomarkers using simple at-home blood tests. Users can track a wide variety of health markers such as vitamin levels, hormone levels, and even liver function.
The innovation coming out of Wales is vast and spans cryogenics specialists focused on transporting goods that require cold storage, for example many biologic products, to developing nations; wound innovation centres; companies developing bionic limbs, to name but a few.
Hubs of science excellence
Science parks and universities offer a wealth of support and research excellence. The Institute of Life Science at Swansea University is a hub for life sciences innovation and is committed to helping innovations organisations to grow.
At Cardiff University, the Wales Gene Park supports and promotes genetic and genomic research across Wales, and its application in healthcare areas identified as priorities by the Welsh Government. Also at Cardiff University, the Brain Research Imaging Centre brings together global experts in their fields to better understand the causes of neurological and psychiatric conditions.
Researchers at Assisted Technologies Innovation Centre (ATiC) of University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) work with other organisations developing innovative products in the health sector. ATiC’s researchers are experienced with user-centred design, user-experience evaluation and analysis, 3D data and motion capture, as well as prototyping in a range of materials. ATiC was also involved in the development of the ventilator mentioned earlier in the blog.
AgorIP is another project within the life sciences Wales hub that is part funded by the European Regional Development fund based in Swansea University. It brings together academics, clinicians and businesses to come up with progressive technology innovations. The project also works with NHS Wales to find innovative ways to improve current technologies and medicines.
There is also support in the form of the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme, which is part funded by UK Research Councils, Welsh Government and Innovate UK and is designed to encourage small business innovation.
The breadth and depth of the life sciences industry in Wales might be surprising to many, but it underscores the huge potential both for businesses and professionals and the extent to which innovation is Wales is supported.