Limerick, long a manufacturing hub, is now on the cusp of becoming a powerhouse in the biopharma field. Ivor Downey tells Pádraig Hoare about US giant Regeneron’s swiftly-expanding mission in Raheen
For Limerick native, Ivor Downey, professional life couldn’t have worked out better, being tempted home from Boston to head up human resources for US giant Regeneron in Ireland.
The icing on the cake is that the New York-headquartered biopharmaceutical company invested not just in his home city of Limerick, but in Raheen — just 5km down the road from where he grew up.
In October 2015, Regeneron announced it was investing an additional $350m (€313m) in Limerick, promising to add another 200 jobs, bringing the total expected job creation in the Limerick area to 500, and total investment to $650m (€580m) by the end of 2017. It is involved with medicines as diverse as oncology to high cholesterol to eye disease.
For a city shocked by the closure of Dell in the past, it was music to the ears of business and community leaders. However, they could be forgiven for being sceptical of any new multinational coming into the area, seeing as Dell and others eventually upped and left.
Regeneron is not only here to stay, said Mr Downey, but also committed to partnering with the likes of his alma mater, University of Limerick, and Limerick Institute of Technology, to nurture the best local talent to transform the region into one that can rival its neighbour Cork for housing the best pharma and biopharma companies in the world.
“Biotech coming to Limerick is such a significant investment in a whole new wave of skill sets for the region. Having come from Limerick, my own association with UL, I’m very strong on wanting to build a partnership with UL and LIT and with other colleges in the region.
“If we work in partnership, our growth will come from local people in the region rather than having to pull people into the region,” he said.
He added: “We are playing catch-up to the Cork region, to be fair. The Cork region has 30-plus years of pharmaceuticals. We’re really only getting going, but our intention is to build that. The local colleges want to engage with us to grow that skill set in the region.”
The people of Limerick have proved down through the decades that they are adaptable, according to Mr Downey.
“If you go back to the 1980s and even the 1970s in Limerick, you had Ferenka [a factory which closed in 1977 with the loss of 1,400 jobs], you had Krups, you had Atari and Dell. All of those foreign-owned companies in Ireland, you always had a strong HR presence in this region. The colleges were always very good at working closely throughout that time. What is key, not just for me, also key for Regeneron, is local employment,” he said.
Any worries that the current US administration’s protectionist rhetoric may affect Irish plans for Regeneron are misplaced, he insisted.
“There’s a significant capital investment gone into the site — €600m. We really haven’t gotten going yet. We’re really only scratching the surface of our commercial manufacturing capabilities. The second thing I would say is that — and it was a key thing for me when joining — is the pipeline of drugs that we have is so strong that I would say it is second to none in the industry.”
He added: “We’ve had two FDA-approved drugs already this year. There are many companies in our industry that would go through their whole lifetime with maybe one FDA-approved drug. There really is a background in science and a belief in the mantra of doing well by doing good here in Regeneron. When you consider the pipeline of drugs we are releasing this year and bringing to commercial production over time — you have one manufacturing facility in upstate New York and the other is in Raheen in Ireland.
“We’re only in our infancy in getting going in Raheen. In time, with the infrastructure we have in place already, I think it’s only going one direction, and that is forward.”
Regeneron has already surpassed its own expectations with 550 now employed, and hiring still ongoing. The company wants not just third level students, but all the way down to primary school students, to know they are wanted.
“From a regional perspective, the parents from Limerick, north Kerry, Tipperary, east Clare — we want them aware of what Regeneron does and what roles we can provide their sons and daughters into the future. Taking that approach means engaging with local schools both primary and secondary as well as the colleges.
“We’ve very much a community-based culture within the company. There’s a strong volunteering element to it. It’s getting the name out there and that awareness. Corporate social responsibility is hugely important to us.
“I was born and bred about 5km from our plant here in Raheen, in Ballyclough. I went to primary school and secondary school locally, and went on to the University of Limerick. It’s a wonderful thing to now come home. Limerick is on the up,” he said.
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