Barriers to Success
One of the advantages of being in the U.K., according to Gaymond, is its compact size. “There is a tendency to undervalue the excellence of the high-speed train links to biotech hubs from London. For example, both Manchester and Liverpool in the Northwest can be reached in a couple of hours and offer life science capabilities that merit attention.”
This, though, can have its downside, as Dr. Jones explains. “The U.K. has an issue with scale and consequently its cost base. Space can be relatively expensive to rent or buy because of market demand for office and lab space. This means that realistically the U.K. cannot compete with Asia in terms of having vast, low-cost manufacturing facilities but can stand ahead on high-end innovation.”
“Our difficulty in Oxford is that we’re full and there is a lack of lab space in our science parks,” Rees comments. “However, there is now a move to increase our footprint, and there are currently up to seven new projects that may provide useful lab space. This is the first time in five years that there have been serious plans for expansion and the Oxford cluster hasn’t grown because of lack of space here and companies have had to move further down into the Thames Valley to gain the space they need.”
“There is a great deal of new physical infrastructure being put in place in the east of England,” Fear adds. “This includes the Biomedical Campus being built at Addenbrookes in Cambridge and the expansion of the Babraham site, as well as the new Bioscience Catalyst next to the GSK site at Stevenage. This space to grow will ensure the U.K. can remain competitive.”
Another issue in the U.K.—which is something being felt globally—is the lack of funding, with many opinion leaders stating that this sector needs enough cash to ensure that research can be translated from concept to commercialization.
“We have excellent VCs in the U.K., just not enough of them,” explains Edwards. “Our public markets are also still very weak, but the upside is that the U.K. government is continuing to support the biopharm sector through initiatives such as the BioMedical Catalyst. Additionally, we have recently seen both the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research Technology start venture funds to support early-stage research.”
“We should accept that much of the initial tech transfer needs to be funded by the public purse because ultimately these products will help the U.K. economy and alleviate human suffering,” Rees continues. “The universities should be out-licensing their technology more readily and PIs in the U.K. should be able to progress their careers based on how many industrial collaborations they have, as well as publication numbers. This would improve early-stage preclinical development in the U.K. and help us stay competitive.”
Many of the U.K.’s key opinion leaders believe the U.K. biopharma industry has in the past not been good at marketing its benefits, and because of its size, the U.K. should now be promoted as a “super cluster” rather than a series of centers of excellence.
“While harnessing our own strengths such as capital efficiency and breakthrough science, there are attributes to be learned from our U.S. friends,” Gaymond says. “These include having a scale of ambition that is truly global and celebrating our successes more aggressively. We are not only a font of worldclass innovation, but also produce some outstanding worldclass companies such as Shire and BTG, as well as some truly innovative young companies like Oxford Nanopore, Touchlight Genetics, and Horizon Discovery.”
Another advantage that has been underexploited is the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS). “We have a large patient population that has extensive medical records, so the U.K. is potentially a cost-effective place to do high-quality clinical development work,” Edwards comments.
Many biotech experts are upbeat about the U.K. biopharm sector’s future and do not view Asia as a threat to the industry. “China has huge markets for new drugs, so instead of the U.K. competing for a slice of the current pie, the pie will be much bigger and this is a great opportunity,” Edwards says.
“Since the U.K. has been active in this sector for over 20 years, we now have a new generation of senior managers in biotech who have the skills to take the U.K. to the next level so I’m hopeful that we are prepared for the next decade,” Rees adds.
“Biopharm companies in the U.K. are more optimistic,” Edwards concludes. “This is because they see that we are part of a global village and Asia offers not only a larger market for products but also inward investment by Asian companies that want access to our worldclass science. We just have to be prepared to be part of that value chain, if we want to remain competitive.”