IN­TER­VIEW

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

FROM a young age, Ger Bren­nan was hell-bent on get­ting into a ca­reer in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. Al­though the Tip­per­ary man, who now heads up the hu­man health divi­sion of one of the coun­try’s big­gest health­care em­ploy­ers, MSD Ire­land, qual­i­fied as a nurse, he knew he was des­tined for a ca­reer in the drugs busi­ness. But the path was far from smooth.

“I re­mem­ber when I used to do the drug rounds,” he says. “I’d be go­ing through the pack­ages to see if I could get con­tact de­tails. And I used to write to th­ese guys in­di­vid­u­ally and some­one said to me one day ‘What have you re­ally done to try and get into this job?’. I said ‘As mo­ti­va­tion I keep my PFOS’.”

“I had over 100 ‘thank you very much for ap­ply­ing for this po­si­tion, we have you on file, blah, blah, blah’.”

For sev­eral years, it was a fruit­less pur­suit un­til the model for em­ploy­ing drugs reps in Ire­land be­gan to change. “I was go­ing to re­cruit­ment agen­cies but then a com­pany called In­novex came onto the scene and they kind of brought in a new model that was con­tract reps.

“So, In­novex were bring­ing in nurses and peo­ple who had done science and giv­ing us six-month con­tracts so that got the door open for me.”

Once the door was opened, there was no turn­ing back for Bren­nan (44).

Work­ing his way up through pharma giants such as Bayer and Wyeth, he joined MSD in 2010, tak­ing on a num­ber of se­nior in­ter­na­tional po­si­tions. He took over the se­nior role in Ire­land last Au­gust. As well as be­ing man­ag­ing direc­tor of the group’s hu­man health busi­ness in Ire­land, Bren­nan is head of MSD’S coun­try coun­cil for Ire­land which over­sees the de­vel­op­ment of MSD’S pres­ence here.

Less than a year into the job, he is over­see­ing sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment here, with the group an­nounc­ing last month that it will in­vest €40m in its man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity in Bal­ly­dine, Co. Tip­per­ary this year.

It is part of a €75m spend over the last three years to up­grade the site’s fa­cil­i­ties.

Among the de­vel­op­ments be­ing in­vested in is the in­stal­la­tion of a new spray-dry­ing fa­cil­ity at the plant — a tech­nol­ogy used in a num­ber of prod­ucts to in­crease their sol­u­bil­ity and im­prove how the medicines are ab­sorbed by pa­tients.

It is all part of en­sur­ing Ire­land re­mains a cut­ting-edge lo­ca­tion for the group in an ever-more com­pet­i­tive global phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sec­tor.

And in Fe­bru­ary, MSD an­nounced that it is to ex­pand its clin­i­cal tri­als pro­gramme in Ire­land, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on the lat­est de­vel­op­ments in the treat­ment of can­cer. That saw the com­pany com­mit up to €25m to Ir­ish-based clin­i­cal tri­als and re­lated R&D ac­tiv­i­ties over the next three years.

“We’re here 50 years and we have eight sites,” says Bren­nan. “Why are we still in­vest­ing in Ire­land? You know, one of the strong things I think we come across is the tal­ent in our peo­ple in Ire­land. Now it would be re­miss of me if I didn’t men­tion the tax breaks and the 12.5pc cor­po­rate tax, but is that the main driver? I don’t think so.”

Ire­land is a key lo­ca­tion in terms of size for the group al­though it has scaled back op­er­a­tions in some lo­ca­tions. It is about to close a plant in Swords, for ex­am­ple, which em­ployed 570 peo­ple. “That’s go­ing to shut down in the next cou­ple of weeks,” says Bren­nan. “But I sup­pose the big thing there, we were able to de­lay that shut­down by over two years.”

While some op­er­a­tions have wound down, other busi­nesses have ex­panded, such as the site in Bal­ly­dine.

“With 1,800 em­ploy­ees we would be one of the largest op­er­a­tions for MSD glob­ally. And the tes­ta­ment on that is at the end of this month, we have 1,500 MSD ex­ec­u­tives fly­ing in for a three-day con­fer­ence in the con­ven­tion cen­tre.

“You know 50pc of the top 20 MSD prod­ucts glob­ally are man­u­fac­tured here in Ire­land.”

One of the more re­cent con­cerns fac­ing the Ir­ish pharma sec­tor has been a pledge by US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to bring drug pro­duc­tion back to the US. Bren­nan be­lieves it is not some­thing to be con­cerned about.

“I think we’ve re­sponded very, very quickly to Pres­i­dent Trump when he made that nar­ra­tive,” says Bren­nan. “Our own CEO has had two meet­ings with the Pres­i­dent and he ba­si­cally gave the com­mit­ment to the Pres­i­dent that yes, there will be man­u­fac­tur­ing and fu­ture man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US for US drugs.”

“Out­side of the US we need to have man­u­fac­tur­ing for drugs that we ac­tu­ally com­mer­cialise in Europe so Pres­i­dent Trump wasn’t as fa­mil­iar with the whole sup­ply chain at that time,” he adds.

“Is it a con­cern for me to­day? Ab­so­lutely not. We’ve just an­nounced the €75m in Bal­ly­dine. We have the sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment we’re go­ing to an­nounce over the next cou­ple of months in our other fa­cil­i­ties and also Keytruda, which is our lead­ing on­col­ogy drug that glob­ally we’re man­u­fac­tur­ing out of Car­low.”

Keytruda, one of MSD’S most ex­cit­ing new drugs, uses the lat­est in biotech­nol­ogy to fight can­cer. “We have the body act­ing as the chemo­ther­apy in tar­get­ing the can­cer cells,” says Bren­nan.

Find­ing new drugs to fight Alzheimer’s is also high on the agenda. “We’re all look­ing for the tar­get, this com­pound that will ac­tu­ally cur­tail the pro­gres­sion of the dis­ease. I mean that’s go­ing to be a game-changer, who­ever can iden­tify that.”

The com­pany’s large work­force re­quires a di­verse set of skills. “Our medics, our med­i­cal ad­vis­ers, they’re all doc­tors or con­sul­tants in very spe­cialised ar­eas. If I look at our com­mer­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion here, all the peo­ple have ba­sic de­grees and higher.

“Then when I get into the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, we have very high-skilled labour here, so we’ve tech­ni­cians, we have a lot of PHD stu­dents, a lot of en­gi­neers,” says Bren­nan. “Be­cause when you’re deal­ing with biotech­nol­ogy, it’s a rapid, rapid process so we need to bring in the bright­est minds, a lot of peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ence. The chal­lenge is keep­ing them.”

Nine of the 10 top pharma firms are in Ire­land, so Bren­nan says it is “ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive”.

Wage in­fla­tion is “not an is­sue for us but it’s some­thing we do a lot of work on so it doesn’t be­come an is­sue”, he says.

While fears over Trump’s state­ments on pharma pro­duc­tion may have been put to one side, Brexit does pose some po­ten­tial chal­lenges.

“To be fair, peo­ple are re­ally not sure what way this is go­ing to look.

“How­ever, sup­ply chain is go­ing to be a chal­lenge for us be­cause we’ve a cen­tralised pact with the UK — as do many phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies,” says Bren­nan. “So if there’s no way where we can put kind of a hold­ing agree­ment in place to al­low us to ac­tu­ally take a step back and say OK, how do we change this ... that to me is prob­a­bly what would keep me awake at night. That we don’t have in­ter­rup­tion to our sup­ply chain.”

There are op­por­tu­ni­ties, how­ever. Health Min­is­ter Si­mon Har­ris is mak­ing a se­ri­ous ef­fort

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