Four objectives for UK pharma
Chris Doherty, Managing Director, Alderley Park
It’s not unusual at this time of year to hear the phrase, ‘If you are in biotech you need to be at BIO.’ The UK has certainly taken that to heart – we had the largest overseas delegation, some 500 business leaders amongst the 17,000 from around the world gathering for the event in San Diego last week.
BIO is the world’s largest biotech convention and the 2017 event comes amid a period of seismic change, with a US President focused on a number of sensitive industry issues, and the UK negotiating its exit from the EU.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) had a stand at the convention which Alderley Park was pleased to be a part of alongside a sizeable presence from the North of England. We were joined on the stand by the government’s Northern Powerhouse, the Northern Health Science Alliance, and North West EHealth. All of whom worked together to communicate that the UK has one of the strongest and most productive life sciences sectors in the world, offering a high concentration of talent and ample opportunities for value creation through partnering, deal making, or direct investment.
The UK government has given priority to the over-arching sci-tech sector in its industrial strategy and from my perspective, there needs to be focus in a number of key areas:
Profile for the North of England
The North of England is a hotbed of innovation and discovery, with scores of fast growth business making their way on the global stage. At Alderley Park we are proud to have developed an ecosystem tailor-made to the needs of life science start-ups, whether they are at the embryonic stage where all they need to work is a lab bench, the right brains and the right equipment, to those moving to the next stage of operation and seeking collaboration with other firms. And indeed the entrepreneurial atmosphere here combined with mentorship opportunities with leaders in the industry may provide exactly the right mix of new world and old world for young pharma businesses hoping to make it big in the sector. BIO creates a platform to showcase the offer but it’s not the only opportunity.
Improved funding for mid-size companies
At the moment, the pharma sector in the UK is misshapen and unbalanced. This is because the successful start-ups in the sector tend to be subsumed by large, multinational firms, with the consequence that mid-size pharma businesses are hard to find. This has a negative impact on the industry for several reasons. For example, entrepreneurial talent tends to get lost once a smaller firm is bought by a larger one, meaning that the sector doesn’t nurture what may have been its dynamic leaders of the future. It also means that innovation is stifled as the ‘start-up’ mentality in which left field ideas and people thrive becomes unsustainable in a corporate environment, which in turn can lead to the sort of lack of intellectual diversity that compromises research.
In order to address this, the government needs to do more to support small pharma businesses to become medium pharma businesses by ensuring that they have access to adequate capital, whether through direct grants, tax breaks or other measures that would make scaling up a more attractive proposition to businesses than exiting early.
Free movement of incoming science skills
Nobody knows what a Brexit – hard, soft or somewhere in between – will mean for freedom of movement, but if the UK life science sector is to succeed, it needs to be able to access international talent without the time lag caused by labyrinthine visa rules. To facilitate this, the government should ensure that those who are coming to work in the UK life science sector from abroad are not impeded by hard-to-navigate immigration restrictions, perhaps through the use of a points-based system that could mean applications are fast-tracked because of the importance of life sciences to the UK economy.
Better Science Education
The inadequacy of STEM education in the UK is something that successive teams at Number 10 have failed to address and unsurprisingly, this has led to a skills shortage. In 2015 the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) published research indicating that those working in blue chip companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer are concerned about the lack of availability of people with clinical pharmacology, bioinformatics and statistics skills. And the impact on the sector goes far beyond just recruitment. And unfortunately, the problem goes beyond recruitment into finding those who will fund newer pharma businesses. In the City, for example, a lack of understanding about the processes within the life sciences industry leads to nervousness around investing in the pharma sector. Better education – from schools right through to postgraduate levels – could help to address this.