Focus on research: Dr Martin O’Halloran, Curam

Martin O'Halloran, Curam
Martin O'Halloran, Curam

Taking a health view of commercial research

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9 November 2018 | 0

Dr Martin O’Halloran is an investigator at the Science Foundation Ireland-backed Curam centre for research into medical devices. He also the first academic in the history of NUI Galway to hold a joint academic position between the colleges of engineering and medicine. Dr O’Halloran’s research ranges from basic scientific research to the clinical evaluation and commercialisation of novel medical devices. In this interview he talks about his academic journey and the importance of having one eye on the market.

Tell us about your academic journey from engineering to medtech
I originally qualified as an electronic engineer, then went on to pursue a PhD in medical imaging, both from NUIG. After my PhD, I was struck about how few medical device technologies make that transition from research lab to patient-clinic. For someone passionate about real patient impact, I found that really frustrating. I then decided to retrain in clinical research to understand that clinic-translation process and how it applies to medical devices.

Looking at groups internationally who were successful in medtech translation, the research tended to be based within a hospital, or led by a clinician. Therefore, in 2014, I established the Translational Medical Device (funded by the European Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland and the NUIG Foundation Office), the first medical device lab in Ireland to be embedded in a regional hospital and co-located with a clinical trials facility. Now, we host a team of 35 world-class engineers, physicists, and clinicians who work together to develop novel medical devices.

Over the years, we have been able to attract and retain some really stellar people in the lab – working alongside them is the best part of my job.

Our research is driven by clinical and market needs, as a team we are relativelytechnology-agnostic’ (we let the problem help define the solution rather than the other way around). We try to find the best technology available, rather than use the technology that is most familiar/convenient to use. So rather than being technology experts, I’d say our team are methodology experts – meaning, given a clinical problem, they know the steps required to identify and prove any given technology and are not wedded to one particular solution direction. This is a different way to think about research (and a challenging space to work in), but it is also exciting and is delivering some very nice outcomes.

At present, we have a broad spectrum of projects in the lab at present ranging from the very applied (developing assistive technologies for children with autism), to really blue-sky research on potential new treatments for dementia.

Why was it important to be based away from a purely academic setting?
Essentially developing a medical device is just very hard, with many ways to fail. In fact, about 75% of new medtech companies fail within the first five years. One way to reduce that failure risk is early and continually input from clinicians and patients, both on the device design but also in planning the required clinical trial. Prof Martin O’Donnell in the HRB Clinical Trials Facility is a real champion of medtech and is supporting a number of exciting medtech research programmes with my lab. The most interesting research questions lie on the boundary between disciplines, so having a lab that sits between the colleges (engineering and medicine) is very exciting.

BioInnovate is a sister programme to Stanford’s BioDesign Programme. How does this programme work and what is its appeal?
BioInnovate is a national innovation programme whose remit is to support the development of high-potential medtech start-ups in Ireland, and develop Ireland’s indigenous medtech sector. The programme (supported by Enterprise Ireland) recruits 12-15 fellows each year, and then gives the fellows nine months to identify a commercially impactful healthcare problem (or ‘clinical-need’), and then make a business out of it.

The programme also helps the fellows develop their post-programme business plan. BioInnovate works because it is supported by whole network of stakeholders, including funders like Enterprise Ireland, medtech experts/advisors, clinicians and academic partners.

The programme operates largely on the currency of goodwill, with all stakeholders agreeing on the common goal of anchoring medtech industry and jobs in Ireland – that’s the part of the programme that inspires me personally.

On your role as co-lead of Health Innovation Hub Ireland – how does it differ from BioInnovate?
The Health Innovation Hub Ireland’s (HIHI) remit is much broader than BioInnovate. HIHI is a joint government initiative between Dept of Enterprise, Business & Innovation and Dpt of Health. The HIHI tries to drive collaboration between the health service and enterprise offering benefits to both and leveraging one another’s strengths.

For companies, the HIHI helps organise pilot and clinical validation studies. For the health service, it gives them access to innovative products, services, devices, that they may otherwise not be exposed to.

There are three key pillars of the HIHI work:

  • Industry: Acting as a broker, the HIHI match companies with relevant clinical teams, oversee a study of each product in an Irish clinical setting. We also de-risk industry engagement for hospitals by managing the entire process through which companies engage with the health system.
  • Healthcare Community: A central part of the our remit is to assess ideas and concepts for healthcare innovation from all staff – clinical and
    non-clinical. We acts as mentors and advise on taking an idea and developing it into a service or product.
  • Education: We engage right across the hospital structures by teaching a new way of thinking to find creative solutions to health challenges
    delivering a series of five HIHI workshops and a diploma in healthcare innovation.

A lot of your work has one eye on commercialisation. To what extent does exploring a business opportunity inform the projects you work on?
The average cost of getting a medical device into the clinic is about €9 million. That level of funding is just not available within an academic environment. Therefore, if you want your technology to help patients, you need to put a strategy in place to fund it outside of academia, and that means at some stage in the development path standing in front of an investor panel. If you have never considered the commercial/investor case, that pitch will be very uncomfortable, and the project will most likely not be funded.

To avoid this, we assess the commercial case of all projects from the very start, and only develop projects where we are confident of securing private funding down the line. In that way, we are developing a ‘translational plan’ for the technology.

As taxpayer-funded researchers, we need to ensure we are delivering an impact for Irish society. This type of commercial due-diligence on our projects ensures we meet that responsibility.

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