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Genesis 2012 – The Debate on UK Biotech

Authored by Karl Simpson

The One Nucleus event hosted the annual conference and this year it rounded off with a debate. On the one side were the ‘Enablers’ and on the other was ‘Industry’, chaired respectively by SCRIP Intelligence’s Editorial protagonists John Hodgson and Mike Ward. The inaugural debate was in parts entertaining and in others provocative but overall it aimed at addressing key issues facing industry and how the ‘enablers’ on the other side see these issues.
So who did we have? Well, here were the panels:


  • • Shaun Grady – VP Strategic Partnering and Business Development – AstraZeneca
  • • Steve Bates – CEO – BIA
  • • David Phillips – Partner – SR One
  • • Lubor Gaal – Director Licensing Europe – Bristol Myers Squibb
  • • Kenneth Powell – Executive Chairman – Q-CHIP



  • • Glen Crocker – CEO – BioCity / UKBIF
  • • Greer Deal – Director – Global Regulatory Services
  • • Prof. Sir Robert Lechler – Executive Director – King’s Health Partners
  • • Andrew J Pulkrabek – Managing Director – LifeScience Ventures
  • • Mark Treherne – CEO – Life Science Investment Organisation, UKTI
  • • Rowan Gardner – BioLauncher


The moderator from Datamonitor did a great job to mediate an insightful debate which got across a lot of different issues, many of which are dominating the boardrooms and corridors of biotech and pharmaceutical companies across the continent and beyond.

As One Nucleus intend to broadcast the debate by video on the web, I have chosen to select some of the key themes from the discussion which I will attribute to the ‘Industry’ or ‘Enablers’ as well as offer some independent points of view. I hope you’ll then add your comments in the section below to continue the debate and delve deeper into why you believe the industry in the UK is not performing as well as some suggest it might.

Industry kicked off the debate by highlighting the issue of pricing and reimbursement and how it is still presenting a major challenge to pharmaceutical companies. It was mentioned that despite the fact you get through the NICE process, this did not guarantee uptake of the product in the healthcare system. This basically means there are more decision makers to get through to get your innovative medicines to patients. It was suggested this effect could result in different product, price and launch sequences which impact UK patients unless the environment improves.

The ‘enablers’ opened up by looking at how well the UK is structured for research but how the process of clinical development thereafter chugs along too slowly for it to be an attractive place for companies to consider for later clinical trials. Equally, the UK remains an environment unfriendly to the development of alternative therapies.

The enabler side then made the case that the pharma industry is in the ‘death throes of an old model of discovery and development’. The focus of the future is much more on small innovation led companies who would serve as the innovation engine for new products.
‘Industry’ then swung the argument towards the UK losing its relevance in the global clinical trial environment, citing figures that suggested a drop off from 6% of phase III trials being done in the UK in 2000, whereas today that figure is closer to 1.5%. It was commented that global pharma is totally agnostic as to where it does business and that it now views the world through a different lens entirely.

One of the aspects that came to the fore in this debate was the one about management talent. Both sides of this debate recognised the integral role that management plays in bringing success to the sector. One of the industry debaters reached for a military quote when trying to explain that the UK didn’t lack talent, in fact it might have an abundance of talent at the scientific level. However, perhaps the ‘Lions are led by donkeys’. The success of the sector largely depends upon the quality of the entrepreneurs and managers with the experience to be able to successively build companies with the capacity to regenerate the UK sector. ‘Industry’ commented on the vital importance of management in funding companies, commenting on Mission Therapeutics as one such example that was funded largely because of the executive management team.

These serial entrepreneurs with their pro-risk mentality are vital to ensure the progression of the industry and in a talent market which is now global, it can be difficult to stop the most talented people from going elsewhere in the world. As an example, Boston now has a mega-infrastructure for biotech and the most successful people can be tempted to join the groundswell of opportunity that this hyper-connected cluster can offer.

This is a key point when we look at how the biotech and pharma industry has changed. Globalisation has altered the complexion of many industries, however, there a few industries which are as global as the life sciences sector. Of course, products failures and a lack of R&D productivity have hindered progression of the sector but other factors have influenced too. One of the most significant changes has been that the boundaries for talent have been broken down and experience now flows freely from continent to continent either physically or virtually, helping form, build and exit successful ventures (and not so successful). This liberation of talent means markets will be affected strongly by their ability to competitively re-employ and engage the brightest minds, thereby regenerating the geographically defined industry. Whether you look at this at a city, country or regional level, you are competing in a global sphere for talent and this is unquestionably a central requirement to biotech success.

It was interesting to hear this debate from such industry luminaries about the importance of talent and in particular the significance of management/leadership expertise in biotech success. It is a feature understood but often overlooked. Creating the right environment to utilise experience is important but markets also need to make sure they are receiving inflow, as there perhaps are too many occasions where people and teams familiar to each other follow each other venture to venture, naturally limiting the creativity offered by new people. So getting this talent balance right is both important and complex. The industry, particularly biotechs and investors, all need to do more in this direction.

I will conclude this article by examining a theme which both ‘enablers’ and ‘industry’ chose to agree on in a fairly conciliatory manner. This centred on the fact that the UK industry and the clusters particularly, simply were insufficiently well connected to be able to be as effective as was required for competitive success. Several of the panel threw in the example of Boston really being the ideal model today of a cluster which has managed to create the right environment but also in the way it is all connected together. My own experience of Boston is it didn’t become an overnight success, instead many years of carefully crafted strategy to attract the right components for success.

Clearly there are many ingredients to make a biotech cluster successful and in our recent trilogy of featured clusters, Liftstream took a look at what Cambridge, Oxford and London are doing. It is clear from the consensus offered during this plenary debate, more needs to be done. It was proffered that if the UK is to be truly competitive on the global scene, it will need to bring together all of the components; finance, research, academia, government, entrepreneurs, executive talent, infrastructure, facilities, then make sure these are connected in a highly integrated way to make the environment much more productive for the biotech companies.

It was a stimulating and thought-provoking debate where ‘industry’ and ‘enablers’ tussled and agreed, but one thing is for certain, everyone wants UK biotech to do better and everyone knows it can.

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