BioBeat16: Does UK life science need to better champion its achievements?

30 November 2016| by Richard Massey


A couple of weeks ago, BioStrata attended BioBeat16, a networking event and panel discussion featuring women in biobusiness who are delivering remarkable success in their field. The theme of the summit was Stretching Biotech Pharma Entrepreneurship, and the breadth of experience on the panel and in the room led to a lively and thought-provoking discussion. Some of the topics covered included collaborative working in life science, the importance of university technology transfer offices and innovative funding models.


Image courtesy of Nigel Luckhurst, Cambridge Judge Business School. Left to Right: (front row) Paul Avery, BioStrata; Helen Fox, Innovation Forum; Gaia Schia, AstraZeneca; (second row) Julie Walters, Raremark; Lynn Drummond, Venture Life Group plc; Sally Waterman, Abzena plc; (third row) Jane Osbourn, Medimmune; Inga Deakin, Imperial Innovations plc, Lucinda Osborne, Covington & Burling LLP, Miranda Weston-Smith, BioBeat Founder; (back row) Harriet Fear, One Nucleus; Shima Barakat, Cambridge Judge Business School.

Thinking bigger

One of the evening’s most interesting discussion points, initiated by panel speaker Julie Walters, founder of Raremark, was that some biotech start-ups feel forced to move out of the UK to the Massachusetts life science hub in order to grow their business. While she believes there’s never been a better time to be a healthcare entrepreneur, she questioned whether the UK life science ecosystem has the capacity to take her business to the next level.

It all boils down to investment. Walters says that though securing seed funding to start a small life science business in the UK is relatively straightforward, scaling to a multi-million dollar enterprise is much easier in Boston, where her sales and marketing operations are located. “To put it into perspective, there’s more money in our building in Boston than there is in the entire UK life science sector”. She claims it can take 6 months in the UK to secure the same investment as it would by talking to an investor a few doors down the corridor.

Key to the success of the Massachusetts hub is the high concentration of commercial, regulatory and scientific expertise in one place. This makes it easier to bring together all the elements necessary to translate innovative research into effective commercial treatments that ultimately benefit patients. With this talent on the doorstep, and a strong entrepreneurial network in place, Walters believes investors across the Atlantic are more willing to take risks.


Expanding UK capability

Although the UK’s life science cluster isn’t as developed as Massachusetts, it has seen remarkable growth in recent years. Some reports say the UK’s ‘Golden Triangle’ (our hotbed of biotechnology industry centred between Cambridge, Oxford and London) is close to becoming the third most important life science hub in the world, after Boston and San Francisco.

Panel member Jane Osbourn, VP Research and Development for MedImmune and chair of the UK BioIndustry Association, opened her talk with a description of the facilities at the new AstraZeneca-MedImmune R&D centre and global headquarters, being built on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, which puts interdisciplinary collaboration and open science at the heart of its design. She says the UK ecosystem is now embracing collaborative environments where the relationships between scientists, business experts and investors can be forged, and events like BioBeat play an essential role in this.

We spoke to Angela Russell, Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and co-founder of OxStem, a company that specialises in developing regenerative therapies for age-related conditions such as dementia and heart failure. Russell agrees the UK funding situation is improving, with overseas funding a particularly important source of funds. In fact, OxStem received a substantial US investment to establish their company here in the UK.

She believes that key to their success is putting the right people in place with the right skills, allowing her to focus on leading innovative research. “We are extremely fortunate to have found a dynamic CEO and strong management team with a wealth of entrepreneurial experience. We’ve structured OxStem so that each of the four disease focused subsidiaries within the company have their own founding scientists which means we have very strong scientific credibility”. Russell says it’s this scientific integrity that gave her investors more confidence.


Celebrating success

Osbourn believes we’ve already got the right ingredients for a successful life science hub, we just need to tell people about it. And she’s sure of one thing; the disparity between the growth potential in the UK and US is not due to a shortage of talent and ideas in UK industry and academia. “The UK has the most productive life science cluster in Europe, with outstanding patient links and excellent funding from the charity sector” says Osbourn. “I think we just need better PR”.

UK life science certainly has much to be proud of. UK research accounts for around 16% of the world’s most highly cited articles, and the sector generated around £52 billion in global sales in 2014, representing 6% of the world market. The government is investing heavily to make the UK a world leader in regenerative medicine, as Rebecca Lumsden and Magda Papadaki from the ABPI explained when we interviewed them earlier this month. Likewise, collaborations between academia, industry and the health service such as those led by Dame Anna Dominiczak, Vice-Principal and Head of the University of Glasgow’s College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, are helping the UK push the boundaries of precision medicine.

By celebrating industry achievements and highlighting personal accomplishments, Miranda Weston-Smith, founder of BioBeat, hopes to inspire others, particularly women, to be bold in their ambitions. I spoke to Dr Beatrix Schlarb-Ridley, Director of Innovation and Impact at the British Antarctic Survey, who attended the first BioBeat event in 2013. “It was BioBeat that actually inspired me to apply for my current position. I thought, if these women can do it, why can’t I?” It seems showcasing success stories at events like BioBeat can have a powerful impact.


BioBeat16 was a highly successful summit that generated much discussion around ways to catalyse growth in the UK life science sector. It’s clear that by embracing collaboration and open science, the ecosystem is producing real success stories that should be celebrated and shared. We hope to see you at next autumn’s BioBeat event!


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