For every sector of the Welsh economy, the coronavirus pandemic has presented huge challenges.
But for one sector at least, it has also presented an opportunity – an opportunity to demonstrate its great importance to Wales as a whole.
Wales has hundreds of businesses working in the life sciences and medical technology sectors. In the Cardiff Capital Region alone there are 200 businesses working in medical diagnostics and devices. Some of these businesses have played a key part in helping the NHS and other healthcare providers tackle the UK Covid-19 epidemic.
From the early days of the pandemic, South Wales companies were there offering their products, helping develop new ones or adapting to produce other things that were urgently needed. In February Cardiff-based medtech Bond Healthcare joined an international consortium led by the Canadian firm Sona Nanotech that was developing a rapid, cheap and easy to use screening test to help triage individuals suspected of having the virus.
Bond was the only company in the world developing the sort of bespoke digital products needed to allow the data from the tests to be collected through a reader system or app before being stored in the cloud. Phil Groom, commercial director of Bond Healthcare, said:
“The Covid-19 outbreak demonstrates the urgent global need for digitally connected, data-driven, rapid diagnostic test systems.”
As the pandemic developed, life sciences network MediWales issued a call for companies that could help with the supply of essential products to register with them. Among the products they asked companies to get in touch about were ventilators, testing kits, dashboard systems to allow access to real-time information, systems to manage and predict workflow, blood gas analysers, screening and patient monitoring equipment, and PPE.
The strength of Cardiff Capital Region’s medtech sector depends not only on its businesses, but also on the quality of its researchers and scientists in its universities and hospitals. A team of Cardiff University and Public Health Wales scientists has been playing a leading role in sequencing Covid-19 virus genomes as part of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK).
By March 25 the scientists had already sequenced more than 50 Covid-19 genomes from Wales.
Dr Catherine Moore, consultant clinical scientist at the Wales Specialist Virology Centre, said the data was giving scientists “incredible” insights into the transmission and dynamics of a new virus into a population with no immunity.
Covid-19 has accentuated the importance of the medtech sector, but it had already been identified as a priority for investment by the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal. The 200 companies working in medical diagnostics and devices, most of them SMEs, employ 8,000 people between them and have a combined turnover of £1.5bn.
The sector is one of the fastest growing in the Capital Region, and its potential for further growth is considered to be large. It rests in part on the strong research base provided by the region’s universities, with three in the region active in the medical diagnostics field. Cardiff University placed 8th in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework for clinical medicine, through the School for Precision Medicine and Diagnostic Pathology Hub.
The region can boast some world leading anchor companies. Renishaw, based in Pontyclun, has a centre of excellence in healthcare industrial additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. Creo Medical, based in Chepstow, is a world leader in endoscopic electrosurgery devices. Cardiff-based TrakCel has established itself as the best in class cellular orchestration platform for advanced therapies, supporting clinical and commercial therapies globally and multi-lingually across a range of therapies.
At a meeting in early March, before the coronavirus outbreak had really taken hold in the UK, the Regional Cabinet agreed to provide £30,000 for due diligence into a project to develop a life sciences innovation hub just south of Junction 32 of the M4 in north Cardiff. It’s hoped the development will attract research bodies and industry, with space for up to 2,000 workers.
The hub is just one element in a five-pronged strategy by Cardiff Capital Region to develop its medtech sector. Other prongs include developing a fit for the future ecosystem bringing together innovative businesses, research institutions and government; enhancing the region’s pre-clinical and clinical trial capacity; boosting local skills with apprenticeships and new university and college courses; and cutting the cost of bringing new ideas to market by creating a shared resource directory.
Right now the priority in Cardiff Capital Region is to help businesses get through the current emergency, and to help our medtech businesses in the fight to beat the virus. But in the longer term, after the crisis is over, the City Deal will be doing all it can to help boost a sector that has so much proved its worth.