A state-of-the-art ‘Life and Health Science’ lab could be built within the borough.
A feasibility study on the potential for such a development has been recommended – at a cost of £12,000 – as part of a drive to increase create jobs and support businesses working in the sector.
A draft strategy and action plan for life and health sciences has been compiled and presented to council at committee level.
It has advocated a number of ways as to how the borough can tap into the sector and take advantage of the ongoing growth which would have significant economic spin-off for the area in terms of jobs and investment.
A report – compiled by a Belfast-based advisory company on behalf of the council – reveals why the prospect is so appealing.
It states: “As demands on health care systems around the world increase, the Life and Health Sciences sector attracts significant attention from policy makers and clinicians seeking more effective treatments and more efficient means of treating people.
“From an economic perspective, the Life and Health Sciences sector reaps significant rewards, offering high value employment.
“Across the UK and Ireland, the sector is widely distributed across all regions, with strong clusters also having emerged in areas such as Dublin, Cork, Galway, London, Cambridge, Oxford and the North West.”
It says that, in Northern Ireland, the sector is “small but dynamic”.
Invest NI has calculated the sector to be made up of around 170 companies employing in the region of 8,000 people.
And the report adds: “Northern Ireland can however boast several highly innovative companies, an integrated health and social care system and a very active and successful academic research community. For these reasons, the sector is receiving a strong focus at Northern Ireland central government level as one that offers growth potential.”
It says that consultations undertaken in developing the strategy and action plan suggest that, following on from the MATRIX Life & Health Sciences report, a forthcoming strategic action plan is being developed for the sector that will ensure it “can compete globally”.
“Council recognises the significant focus that central government departments and their agencies are placing on the sector and seeks to act as a willing partner, where it can support the development of the sector,” adds the stategy and action plan document.
It also examines what has and is happening within the sector in other areas, including across the UK and Republic of Ireland, and overseas, in Canada, Sweden and New Zealand.
Among the recommendations from the action plan going to council is that it would facilitate a Life and Health Sciences Forum to address issues such as developing better linkages between industry, healthcare and academia; innovation, knowledge transfer and take up of new technology; supply chain development; attracting new businesses; consider employability and skills issues; and working with local businesses to scope and map issues affecting growth in life sciences across the area.
The forum – which should, if accepted, be in place by March 2018 – would introduce more effective partnership working within the sector and with a range of private and public-sector stakeholders.
It will include representatives of key strategic stakeholders locally and regionally, among the many being Invest NI, Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, and Southern Regional College, and would enable information and knowledge sharing amongst partners.
The forum will also seek to host regional sector events in the borough.
The strategy also recommends exploring the ‘skills pipeline’ through undertaking a survey of GCSE and A Level students to determine their perceptions of Life and Health Sciences as a career choice and the barriers to their entry and act on the results.
The council would facilitate ‘discover Life & Health Science’ sessions that “enable primary school children to experience Life Sciences in real world settings and hear from people that have chosen a Life & Health Sciences career path”.
And a means tested bursary/support for Higher Level Apprenticeships in relevant subjects could be introduced to “ensure an appropriate flow of skills into the local employers”.
The creation of a ‘Life and Health Science’ lab perhaps the key recommendation.
The action plan indicates that the barriers to entry for new businesses into the sector are typically cited as “high costs and a lack of facilities”.
The plan proposes: “Council will undertake a feasibility study for the creation of a Life Sciences Lab.”
And putting more meat on the bones, it adds: “Similar in scope to the NI Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre, the lab would be a shared environment with wet and dry lab facilities as well as admin/office space.
“It would offer cutting-edge facilities, provide flexible, shared workspace for entrepreneurs and small businesses to work, together with academia and health care providers.
“This environment, with its shared services, would encourage collaborations, foster innovation and provide a platform for ideas to flourish and businesses to grow.”
Council would work alongside Oxford Innovation, Catalyst, Almac, and Queen’s and Ulster Universities as ‘delivery partners’.
A feasibility study has been recommended to “quantify the level of demand for a lab which can support business growth in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area”.
The draft action plan has gone to committee this week for consideration – to allow councillors to make their comments – and is expected to be subject to further discussion and debate in the weeks ahead.