April 1, 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 7)
Susan Aldridge, Ph.D.
Networking Creates Opportunities and Overcomes Obstacles
While activity in U.K. biotech often appears to be focused on Oxford and Cambridge, the capital is the center of gravity. London is the most accessible city in the world, from both a travel and time-zone viewpoint. It has 28 universities with 1,300 biomedical researchers and five medical schools on 15 hospital sites, with a huge patient population for clinical trials. Meanwhile, the London Stock Exchange (LSE), with its Alternative Investment Market is, increasingly, the public market of choice for European biotechs.
London is a global, multicultural city, where big pharmas like AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and GlaxoSmithKline are headquartered, while biotechs Amgen and Gilead recently located facilities in Uxbridge, West London. There is also easy access to VCs and service providers, including lawyers, accountants, and public relations consultants, which biotechs require to build their businesses.
London Biotechnology Network
“London is the only biotech cluster that can be described as a science park with a stock exchange in the middle,“ says Tony Jones, Ph.D., director of biotechnology and healthcare at London First, an organization promoting the interests of business in London. He coordinates The London Biotechnology Network (LBN; www.londonbiotechnology.co.uk), set up in 2000 in response to a perceived need to develop the capital’s biotech sector. LBN is co-supported by London First and the London Development Agency (LDA), its public sector equivalent.
Over 800 organizations, including biotechs, pharmas, and service providers from London and around the world, are involved in LBN, providing a forum for networking that is vital to biotech. Besides regular meetings, LBN also organizes partnering events and evenings when London biotech companies are showcased to the investment community. For LDA, the Network is one of several initiatives, including proof-of-concept, seed funding, and showcasing London biotech around the world. “LDA has made a strategic decision to prioritize the life sciences sector in London, because of its strong base, its high added value, and increasingly global nature,“ explains Damian Lynch, Ph.D., LDA’s senior life sciences manager.
Starting Up at LBIC
Some drawbacks of a London location include finding and affording space to begin and expand a biobusiness, as building labs is risky for property developers, and there is, as yet, no science park. The need for professional lab space in London has been met partly by the London BioScience Innovation Centre (LBIC; www.lbic.com), set up in 2001 as the initiative of Professor Colin Howard of the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).
The first phases of development involved refurbishment of RVC buildings, but the recently opened Phase III is purpose-built and increases the Centre’s capacity by 50% to provide 1,800 m2 of lab and office space. Unlike other U.K. biotech incubators, LBIC, owned by RVC, is a company, and although some LDA money was used in its construction, none is involved in its operations.
The 20 or so companies located at LBIC are a mixture of London spin-outs and overseas companies wanting to establish a U.K. presence as they expand. “We can help companies at an early-stage when they need a professional but supportive environment,“ comments Paula Glason, LBIC marketing manager. “Coming here gives a company credibility,“ adds business development manager, Bradley Hardiman. “It shows you mean business. There is a big learning curve involved in running a company, and we have a lot of knowledge.“
A company would typically stay at LBIC for around three years before moving on. For instance, Sosei used LBIC to establish a European office. After a three-and-a-half year stay, it is now located in premises close by. “Overseas companies can grow here and do well,“ says Glason.
LBIC’s Virtual Client Service
LBIC also offers a virtual client service where a company can create a presence at the Centre without physically moving there. This is especially relevant for overseas companies. “This helps clients test the water by having a central London address,“ says Glason.
One of LBIC’s virtual clients is Finland-based Cerebricon(www.cerebricon.com), which is focused on preclinical research. “Most of the CNS divisions of the big pharma companies are close by and clients want to see you in person. It is easier for us and them to meet in London for a couple of hours than have them come to Finland,“ says Patrick Sweeney, director of business development at Cerebricon.
LBIC is also doing business with clients in France and hopes to increase this when the new Eurostar terminal at nearby St Pancras station is completed, allowing even more rapid access to continental Europe.
Of course, cost is an issue when it comes to a company renting space at LBIC or anywhere in London, compared to being in a university. The way this is perceived could change though, as there are moves to make academic institutions charge startups the true cost of their premises. Incubators elsewhere in the U.K. may be cheaper at present but many are funded by short-term public money; when this runs out they too may be forced to charge more.
Imperial College Incubator
Meanwhile, spin-outs from London’s higher education institutes will soon be able to benefit from the Imperial College BioIncubator, due to open in June. The 7-million incubator, jointly funded by LDA and Imperial College, has 12 wet labs, 16 offices, and a business center, together occupying 24,000 square feet of refurbished college buildings. It will be able to accommodate up to 15 companies.
Spin-Outs in London
There are around 110 biotech and related companies in London, located mainly in the central and western areas. London is strong in stem cell, oncology, neurology and imaging, cardiovascular, infection, and drug delivery. This has led to the creation of many spin-outs.
For example, Trigen (www.trigen.co.uk) emerged from the Thrombosis Research Institute and is now growing rapidly after its merger with Procorde last year to form Europe’s first broad-based cardiovascular company with a full pipeline of products in thrombosis and vascular disease. Its lead product, TGN 255, will shortly enter Phase III as intravenous anticoagulant therapy in intermittent hemodialysis.
“The product has a good profile for renally impaired patients, a rapidly growing market,“ says Sanjay Kakkar, Ph.D., Trigen’s CEO. “We hope TGN 255 will transform us into a heavyweight biotech with our own sales and marketing.“
The company, with labs and offices in different London locations, plans to consolidate on one site as it expands, which could be challenging. “We don’t want to convert buildings,“ says Dr. Kakkar. “We don’t think that would be a good use of shareholders money. We have no plans to move out of London but we are looking at all options for future growth.“
A London location has had many advantages for the company, he adds. “This has been a fantastic site for us in terms of accessibility, recruiting and retaining skilled and talented managers, and access to a network of people who have helped us develop.“
Antisoma (www.antisoma.com) is a semivirtual drug development company with a portfolio of novel anticancer drugs, three of which are in clinical trials. They have offices are in West London, close to Heathrow, and a dedicated laboratory facility at St George’s Hospital Medical School.
“One issue in London is getting good quality lab space, but we have been lucky enough to find somewhere brilliant,“ says Glyn Edwards, CEO. “We get a lot by being associated with the Medical School, and we hope we give something back too. There is a huge teaching hospital and academic infrastructure here in London. You can nearly always find a world expert in a therapeutic area, so it is an immense resource.“
Meanwhile, Arrow Therapeutics (www.arrowt.co.uk) is focused on infection with programs in hepatitis C and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Its lead product in RSV is in Phase II. Onyvax (www.onyvax.com) is developing therapeutic cancer vaccines and has a product in Phase II for prostate cancer. Finally, MedPharm (www.medpharm.co.uk) is a drug delivery service provider, developed from the Department of Pharmacy at Kings College and specializing in novel topical and airway drug formulation.
The Rest of the UK
In the context of the rest of the U.K., Oxford and Cambridge are only an hour away from London, and these three centers together form a true biotech hub and critical mass with over 400 companies, 60% of the U.K.’s LSE listed biotechs, and 20% of Europe’s public biotechs. In all, south-east England is home to a quarter of the European biotech industry.
Activity elsewhere in the U.K.—Scotland, Wales, the Northwest—is seen as consolidation rather than competition. “Working together in the U.K. is an emerging theme. There is less location-based competition than there used to be,“ says Dr. Jones. “As the life sciences sector matures, world cities like London and New York will be the only places that can really compete,“ adds Dr. Lynch.