Billy Sisk: Firms working at record speeds to tackle Covid-19

Billy Sisk, EMEA life science industry manager at Rockwell Automation, discusses how automation in life sciences is set to help Ireland curb the spread of Covid-19.


Going back, my background was was very much in IT. I graduated out of the Christian Brothers College in Cork and that was around the time when personal computers were becoming the mainstay in most households, which was around the mid 1990s. When I came out of college, I got my first job in Apple, and it’s safe to say it wasn’t as cool as it is now. It was around the time that Steve Jobs was making his second comeback to Apple and I stayed with the company for a couple of years. An opportunity then came about to work for a small engineering company here in Cork, which specialised in Apple infrastructure and Apple products. Back in those days, Apple wasn’t a household name here, so it was very much a niche product and role to take up.

Unfortunately, after about 12 months, the company went into liquidation, and me being young and semi-foolish at the time, I decided to set up my own my own company and I took on that customer base. I ran the company for a number of years before being acquired by a London-based IT company in the mid 2000s.

“We as a country have a rich history of being able to deliver and produce world class medicines and that’s certainly going to continue on into the future”

After that, I started breaking into the life science and pharmaceutical industry, in terms of IT support and cybersecurity. This was an area that really fascinated me, and then the opportunity to join Rockwell Automation came up, a company that was in an aggressive expansion mode in Ireland at the time. Throughout the last 13 years, I have primarily worked within the life science and pharmaceutical sector. For the last four years I have been running our life science industry for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, making sure that we’re delivering for what the patient needs in terms of bringing medicines to market in a faster and safer process.

Rockwell Automation

We’re a large US multinational with about 22,000 employees globally. The bulk of the business is in the automation space, across a very broad range of industries, from aerospace to automotive, to oil and gas to life sciences. We support our customers when they are automating processes by getting the lowest costs, improving quality and to help get products to market faster for these companies. In the last couple of years, we’ve been moving much more into the software space in order to drive business intelligence and better outcomes for manufacturers.

Life science in Ireland

We are in a very lucky position to have such a large industry here in Ireland. When you look at what it means to Ireland, it’s a $45 billion a year export market It’s also employing over 50,000 people directly, and you can probably multiply that number by four for the amount of indirect jobs that are associated in the form of engineering or delivery of services.

It’s a really critical industry, and since the year 2000, it has been growing at an exponential rate. In those last 20 years, we’ve had a lot of innovative investment from the biotech segment, and we’ve been very lucky to be able to attract those companies to Ireland. We as a country have a rich history of being able to deliver and produce world class medicines and that’s certainly going to continue on into the future.

Covid-19 impact

When you look at life sciences in Ireland as a whole, you’re looking at three main segments. You’ve got biotechnology, which is everything around producing innovative treatments for very complex diseases, and vaccine development also falls under that. This space is absolutely booming right now and a lot of the global companies who are at the front of the race for a vaccine for Covid are well entrenched in Ireland.

“We’re talking about billions of doses which puts incredible pressure on manufacturing capacity and infrastructure”

If you look at another segment like medical device, it’s almost a Jekyll and Hyde situation. On one side, when Covid broke, you had customers who were supplying critical equipment for the fight against the virus, things like ventilators, respirators and testing kits for the actual disease. They experienced an incredible ramp up in demand, and they had to go through a rapid increase in production in a very short period of time, which is not an easy thing to do. However, companies that manufacture things like hip and knee joint stents saw a huge drop off in demand for their products as surgeries were cancelled. It has really been a case of two halves on the medical device side of things, with one side really booming, and the other side really struggling.

The pharmaceutical sector is the third main sector and this area is very stable. It doesn’t really see big peaks or drop offs. Here, we’re talking more about our traditional type medicine, and I guess the life science sector overall is very stable. Medical device and other areas are very consistent. Everyone still needs medicines and it’s critical part to spend  in terms of healthcare. Covid-19 has introduced some unique challenges that I think companies probably weren’t preparing for, certainly in terms of keeping our people safe.


Automation is crucial, even in relation to the search for a vaccine. Over the last number of years, companies have been investing quite heavily into automation and digitalisation, but in terms of technologies like artificial intelligence for instance; in that drug discovery stage, it’s all about trying to unearth the best assets to bring through clinical trials. Companies are using technology to basically try and narrow the focus very quickly and they do this by using technologies such as AI to help them make better decisions.

In that drug discovery stage when pharmaceutical companies are trying to decide which molecule we should be betting on and which gives us the best chance of having a successful vaccine, they have to go through thousands of pages of previous clinical trials to learn about different molecules and why they fail. That’s a time consuming process, so by having technology to work through that information, you can use those learnings to really speed up the process, and that’s what companies are doing now. 

“I think Covid-19 will be an easier one to crack because there has been so much work done in influenza and from the SARS outbreak in the 2000s”

We’re already seeing companies moving into stage three clinical trials, which for a normal vaccine, you’re looking at a window of somewhere between 10 to 15 years to successfully get a product to market. We’re talking about incredible speeds with companies utilising all this technology. Once we get them to the manufacturing process, it’s going to be about speed to patients. We’re talking about billions of doses which puts incredible pressure on manufacturing capacity and infrastructure. I think this will be almost 100 per cent automated to allow for that 24 hour a day manufacturing.

Finding a vaccination

That’s a question I get asked all the time, and it’s a tricky one to answer. As I mentioned, the typical life cycle of a drug development is between 10 and 15 years, and in my opinion, to have something within three years would be nothing shy of a miracle. But in saying that, there has never been a situation like Covid in modern times, where we have this level of technology and investment. It’s a unique situation where you’ve got different pharmaceutical companies, who would traditionally be competitors in certain areas, really combining their knowledge for the greater good to try and get something to market faster.

When you look at where certain companies are in terms of the vaccine development stage, we’ve now got a number in stage three which is late stage clinical trials. Of those, I would say a couple are quite risky. Some of the companies are going with this mRNA vaccine, and there has never been a successful mRNA vaccine brought to market for human use before, so this would be a first of its kind.

Personally, I would say mid-to-late 2021 will be our best bet. People have pointed to areas like HIV where we’ve never had a successful vaccine, and that’s been an area that’s had significant investment. But I think Covid-19 will be an easier one to crack because there has been so much work done in influenza and from the SARS outbreak in the 2000s. A lot of groundwork has already been done, so I think we’ll have a vaccination by this time next year.

Interview by Stephen Larkin

Published: 9 October, 2020