Wednesday 16 January 2013

Life sciences: The UK needs to connect the dots

The recent Genesis conference in London, hosted a weighty debate around whether the UK ecosystem is conducive to a strong life sciences sector. It scoped out the science, industry, political environment and public policy, human talent, access to capital, and nurturing entrepreneurship.

A panel of life science industrialists and practitioners presented one case, a panel of politicos and infrastructural enablers presented another. And through the wizardry of wireless voting buttons, the audience could express an electronic show of hands – instantaneously projected to the screens.

So, is the UK ecosystem conducive to life sciences? Well, the audience was split down the middle, 50:50 (50.9:49.1 to be precise).

Hurdles to market entry

Kicking off the discussion and pointing to strengths in the UK, Shaun Grady – VP Strategic Partnering and Business Development at AstraZeneca (AZN) – highlighted government initiatives that have provided financial support for life sciences. These included Regional Growth Funds, patent and R&D tax incentives, and funding of research councils.

However, Shaun also noted that AZN (which invests £1.6bn in R&D in the UK) is looking globally for a competitive environment in which to operate. His particular concern with the UK is the reimbursement of new drugs, both on price and uptake. 

“When boards are making decisions about where to put their next research dollars, the general commercial climate, and how they feel that innovation is welcomed in a particular territory is key,” he said; adding that in the UK, having achieved regulatory approval and NICE recommendation, there is still no guarantee that a drug will be taken up in the NHS. 

Following on from this, Greer Deal, Global Regulatory Services (a consultancy specialising in product regulatory approval) pointed to the time taken for product approvals in the UK as another issue. “When you submit a dossier for approval, the MHRA [the UK drug approval body] must turn around their assessment in 210 days. However, if there is a question – the clock stops – so this takes regulatory approval in to years.” Speed is important and to be globally competitive, Greer believes this needs to be brought down to 12 – 18 months.

Healthy new shoots and strong roots

Despite these factors, Glen Crocker CEO of UK bioincubator network BioCity, believes the sector is growing fast. He notes that where Pharma has left the UK, the sites are rapidly filling with new, high-growth companies. Glen believes these small companies will be the future engines of the sector, with the role of big Pharma increasingly moving to late stage clinical trials, regulatory approval, and sales & marketing.

With Pharma companies needing to in-license products and technologies to fill their pipelines Lubor Gaal, Head of Europe Transactions at Bristol-Myers Squibb, said that it is excellent research that attracts the Pharma industry to a country. “At BMS, we are agnostic about country – we go wherever there is good medical research.” He noted that this year China has, for the first time, published the most peer-reviewed research in life sciences.

On the basis of research, the UK is exceptionally well-poised, as agreed by all parties; it is recognised globally as centre of research excellence. However, Lubor noted that he was not convinced that the UK systematically tracked all its research, and as such it is hard to know exactly what commercial potential is out there.

And this sentiment was re-enforced by David Phillips, a Partner at SROne, GlaxoSmithKline’s venture capital wing. “We have a whole team searching for disruptive technologies from the UK, but it’s a case man-power to track these down.” This means that exciting and commercially valuable technologies could easily be missed if small companies are not ensuring they are visible.

Building on the facets of UK expertise, Prof Sir Robert Lechler, Executive Director of King’s Health Partners, pitched that the UK is a very attractive place to conduct experimental medicine and early stage trials. Sir Robert also pointed out that alongside the world-beating clinical investigators, the NHS is an immense resource for identifying relevant patients for clinical trials. “We have great science and punch way above our weight in terms of biomedical research – we now also have fantastic experimental facilities in the UK.”

Such infrastructural faculties have not come about by chance. Indeed, Mark Treherne, from the Life Science Investment Organisation – part of the UKTI – said that the government has put forward £992m over recent years to support the infrastructure for clinical trials and experimental medicine.

Gone too far, or the wrong direction?

While acknowledging the success of government initiatives to create research excellence, the serial biotech entrepreneur Ken Powell noted there’s almost an excess of talented researchers.

“The government has invested vast sums in life sciences to create this research talent – but the bulk of the profits are going abroad,” he said. Ken then cited the example of Cambridge Antibody Technology, whose technology identified a candidate that went on to become the world’s biggest selling drug. Humira, which treats a wide variety of disorders related to the immune system, sold circa $4bn in the US over the last four quarters, but the profits went to Abbott Laboratories in the US.

Following on from this, Ken asked the question: “Where is the management?” In doing so he pointed to the fact that there are surprisingly few serial entrepreneurs that stay in the UK, thus there is a lack of commercial nous to establish the next waves of biotech companies.

Taking this thread further, Mike Ward, Editor-in-Chief of leading industry publication SCRIP Intelligence, noted that continental Europe and West Coast US is populated with serial entrepreneurs from the UK suggesting that these people clearly think the UK is hostile – or at least not the most favourable.

The potential fix

Andrew Pulkrabek of UK/US venture capital firm LifeScience Ventures asked the cutting question: “Is the UK operating in silos?”

Describing the ecosystem in such US life science hotspots as Boston, San Francisco, Research Triangle Park, Andrew noted that there is a highly connected ecosystem, from leading edge research and technology development with angel investors, seed stage and later stage investors. Additionally, there is infrastructure, management, and mentors who have been through the process before.

He concluded: “I don’t get the impression that all the elements don’t exist here, it’s just that they are not necessarily connected.”

And here I believe our US cousin has struck the nail on the head. There can be no doubt about the UK having the essential elements to make life sciences flourish in the UK – world-class research, a supportive government, premier capital markets, and the deep-rooted pharmaceutical industry. However, individual regions within the UK have forever battled to be the best in the country – North vs. South, Scotland vs. England, or the age old varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge – rather than present a single, unified face.

If you take Route 101, the scenic coast road, from San Francisco to San Diego, you’ll cover around 550 miles. That stretch of California is the world’s biggest biotech hub. The run from the UK’s most northern university in Aberdeen, down to the most southerly, Plymouth, is just shy of 600 miles – so, on a global scale, the UK is a single place that would benefit from a little more cohesion.

You can watch the plenary debate in full here.  


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