Adding intelligence to life science operations

With technologies like AI being integrated into healthcare, Ireland’s life sciences sector faces the need for digital transformation

Damian Costello, head of life sciences and technology, Ireland, Expleo

The life sciences sector, notably pharma and medtech, are major contributors to the Irish economy, with major players having significant operations here, including Novartis, AbbVie, Janssen, Pfizer, Sanofi, Lilly, AstraZeneca and Bristol Myers Squibb. Important as the sector is, though, it is faced with the challenge of adapting to our increasingly digital world.

Company: Expleo

Year it was founded: The Expleo brand was launched in 2019 after the merger of Assystem (founded in 1966) and SQS (1996).

Number of staff: 19,000

Why it is in the news: Driven by major changes in healthcare, Irish pharma and medtech manufacturing is faced with the challenge of digital transformation.

Damian Costello, head of life sciences and technology for Ireland at Expleo said that in his role liaising with site managers for pharma and medtech multinationals, he saw a real opportunity ahead, but coming with it was a risk.

“My primary focus is to provide digital transformation services. Basically, we provide a one-stop-shop for the coordination and validation for the digital transformations that are happening in the foreign-direct investment manufacturing sites,” he said.

Life sciences manufacturing is critical to the fabric of rural Ireland, he said, and in light of this, the challenge posed by new technology needs to be taken seriously.

“The particular service we offer is based on the insight that digital transformation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you don’t transform you will be left behind. On the other hand, sites in other places may be more cost effective”.

As a result, he said, Ireland has to be the best in terms of design for manufacturing and rolling-out production.

“We do have a strong reputation, but digital transformation poses challenges,” he said.

“With digital transformation, corporate can interrogate all aspects of your business. That will mean that Ireland’s 40 years of trading on a skilled labour force will face competition from, for example, eastern Europe. It’s critical that any site does three things: one, it keeps production up.

“Two, it has to have the smoothest transformation possible, because if it gets it wrong the next investment could go to Mexico or eastern Europe. You are either a shining star or a fading star, you are either winning or you are not.

Results will be the deciding factor, though.

“The third, and most critical, thing is that the site has to eke every last ounce of competitive advantage out of these transformations.

The digital health economy, which the Irish plants are servicing, will be unrecognisable

Despite these challenges, Costello said that everything is to be played for as the life science sector globally has, until now, been slow to accept digitisation.

When it happens, it will mean that manufacturing sites, particularly once they are cloud-enabled, will not only be easier to interrogate, but also more prone to being seen as part of a more modular global supply chain. As a result, Costello said, digital transformation must add value.

“Sites need to double down on things like R&D, really on anything that broadens their appeal to corporate,” he said.

“In five years’ time, you will be operating in a digital health economy, whether you like it or not, and, in five years when everyone has transformed there will be marked changes in the market. There will be more personalised healthcare and you will see a shift of power from institutional power to people power,” he said.

“The digital health economy, which the Irish plants are servicing, will be unrecognisable”.

Among the key technologies, naturally, will be artificial intelligence (AI), but while the potential uses of AI in healthcare are well understood, it will also have a role in operations and production, Costello said.

“AI comes into it in training, in chatbots, it comes in everywhere. Also, if you’re cloud enabled, handling huge chunks of data and finding patterns in it is a huge use case for AI in process optimisation for improving competitive advantage,” he said.

Recent regulatory developments in AI will work in the favour of life sciences, Costello said, as the highly regulated sector is not suited to the free-wheeling approach taken by technology businesses

“The digital, unregulated model of ‘knock-out-a-beta and fix-things-later’ is anathema to medtech and pharma. Manufacturing people, operations people, have a right-first time and make-it-consistent attitude. Consistency is the number one value in manufacturing,” he said.

As a result, the EU AI Act, in particular, will be welcomed.

“It is very similar in its structure and logic to MDR [Medical Device Regulation] and IVDR [In Vitro Diagnostic Medical Devices Regulation], the two big EU medical device regulations. The logic that is [now] being applied to data is exactly the same as that being applied to physical things,” he said.

Expleo’s approach was similar, he said, in that it was not technology-led.

“We are a technology company, but we approach transformation using operations logic, not technological enthusiasm,” he said.

“It’s all to be played for and Ireland is a fantastic place to do it. Medtech needs to move into the digital world and we have mature digital industries, but we need to take it seriously and consider it an opportunity and not think about little bits of automation here and there,” he said.