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Incubating biotech’s future

The trials of nurturing the next generation of small to medium-sized biotechnology firms
incubating biotech

A vibrant start-up biotech community, with supporting infrastructure, is vital to feeding the success of the life sciences SME sector in London. We have all the right ingredients for maintaining this community inside London but the lack of commercial incubation spaces has again become a significant limiting gap. 

The Queen Mary BioEnterprises Innovation Centre (QMB) in London's Whitechapel is the most recent initiative to plug this gap. However we are already at full capacity, placing early and late stage incubation space at a high premium in London. This hints at the underlying strength of the life sciences sector in London but it also begs the question about unmet demand for research and development space in the capital.

QMB was set up in 2010 with a £7m grant from the now defunct London Development Authority and £18m from Queen Mary University. The QMB site is now the largest purpose built laboratory space in central London, generating around £250,000 a year in business rates and enabling 300 plus science jobs in what was once considered an economically deprived area of London. 

Given a UK historical perspective, one might typically expect a new build urban incubator to take four to five years to fill up. So it's a real achievement to hit full occupancy in half this time, particularly when you consider that, post the 2008 credit crunch, scientific innovation requires serious long-term financial commitment, often with a paucity of short-term returns. 

With the support of Queen Mary University of London we have been able to ride out the economic downturn. The uncertain financial climate caused our letting rates to be lower than originally forecast and the sales cycles were longer on the smaller labs but we still managed to ensure that the facility's 40,000 sq. ft. of lab space was let in a comparatively short period. 

QMB's full occupancy and its current sales pipeline are indicating that demand for science-based business incubation space in London is now outstripping supply, even given that a London location is never going to be cheaper than the more traditional life science incubator locations in Oxford and Cambridge.

Our tenant list comprises early stage start-ups to more established, listed companies like Retroscreen Virology, one of the few life science IPOs to come to market since the start of the economic downturn, as well as Biomoti, Mediwise, Duvas Technologies, Spirogen and The Specialist Pharmacy.

BioMoti is one such company. The company's core technology was licensed from Queen Mary, University of London and developed in the adjacent Blizard Institute.

Previously a so-called 'virtual' company, an informal start-up in the university department, it moved into QMB in April after raising £300,000 to develop its technology to dramatically improve the performance of cancer drugs. 

Moving from the University to its own space at QMB provided it with a more distinct identity and enabled it to set up laboratories that meet its specific R&D needs, as well as increase its credibility with potential investors and collaborators.

Queen Mary and Barts Health are investing heavily to create a world-leading life sciences ecosystem

I put our performance down to two major marketing assets; firstly, our ability to provide both early-stage space for new start-up companies as well as follow-on space for companies as they grow, which means companies can stay at QMB for longer. 

Secondly, the QMB Innovation Centre is a new build construction whereas many urban incubator facilities are often converted from pre-existing buildings. QMB has been designed to incorporate specialist features like fume hood air extractor systems that are critical for chemistry, and internal walls free of internal services, which allows for easy expansion. 

Both of these assets mean that we can accommodate a broad range of tenants in areas as diverse as drug discovery, instrumentation, biotechnology and clinical trials.

Our tenants are companies who see the benefits of working in London, with close proximity to world leading academic and clinical facilities. We are next door to Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, Barts and The London, which is in the country's top five for quality of research. We are also five minutes' walk from the new Whitechapel Crossrail station which will radically reduce east west transit times across the city. 

So what does the future hold for QMB and the life sciences sector in London? Not surprisingly I'm bullish about the sector, not least because the UK government has made numerous overtures about life sciences being a key contributor to rebalancing the economy and promoting future economic growth. 

London Mayor Boris Johnson recently gave the go-ahead for a £1.1m investment in a 'Med City' which is aimed at reaffirming the UK capital's credentials as a major centre for European medical research.

The Med City investment comes after a string of other positive developments for the UK's biopharma sector, including the government's decision to make a second wave of catalyst funding worth £47m to help small companies commercialise their R&D and £600m to improve the infrastructure for scientific research announced during last year's autumn budget.

Queen Mary and Barts Health are investing substantially in Whitechapel to create a world-leading life sciences ecosystem connecting academics, industry and the NHS. The new Whitechapel Crossrail station is due to open in 2018, providing connectivity with complementary life science infrastructure in West London. QMB is no more than 5 minutes' walk from these potentially transformative developments and is well placed to benefit from the economic and social revitalisation in the area.

Throw in other highly rated academic institutions like Imperial College London and University College London, the numerous teaching hospitals and big investments in new science facilities, and the capital's position as a hub for medical and technological research is in great shape.

Article by
Ramsay Richmond

executive manager at QMB

11th November 2013

From: Research

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