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Pull together

The concept of clusters is key to bolstering the UK's R&D base

Dr Richard Barker, director general of the ABPI Paul Drayson's Office for Life Sciences' strategy is being developed to bolster the R&D base, which underpins the industry's claim to being one of the UK's leading industrial sectors for the post-recession future.

The concept of clusters is key to this. Prior to the ABPI, I spent much of my working life in and around bioscience clusters. Most notable is Boston where Harvard and MIT have spawned hundreds of life science companies, which jostle for space and attention with leading labs from Pfizer, Amgen and Merck. So rich is the bioscience soil in Boston that it has attracted venture capitalists, search firms and other "service industries" critical to the success of the cluster.

But the cluster does not stop there. Leading medical schools provide facilities for trials, Kendall Square cafes provide informal meeting places for entrepreneurs and a new generation of venturing bioscientists is being educated on the joint Harvard/MIT course in bio-entrepreneurship.

Building a successful biocluster requires a triple helix of resources – great science, a pool of talented people and risk-tolerant finance. These three strands are found in other places across the globe too, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and, increasingly, new Asian centres like Mumbai, Shanghai and Singapore.

Can Britain compete?
Let's start with good news. The UK has three of the top ten in the worldwide bioscience league table. Its annual spending on government-supported life science research has reached £1.7bn. This is about the same share of spend on medicines that global pharmaceutical companies themselves spend on research. The bulk of support from Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK goes to UK biomedical research. So, although the global field is increasingly competitive, we do have the research muscle to compete.

On people and money, the picture is less rosy. We probably have the strongest crop of bio-entrepreneurs in Europe, but there are probably more in Boston than in the whole of the UK. The supply of venture capital is sparser and more risk-averse than in the US.

Confronting the challenges
The prognosis for the unaided emergence of bioclusters is not particularly glowing. We need to catalyse both the training of future cluster leaders and find ways to "prime the pump" for new venture formation and the forging of closer ties between the UK's basic bioscience centres and major companies (like GSK, AstraZeneca and Pfizer) who still conduct research programmes here.

There are three other challenges we must address. The first is the culture in academia and the NHS that fails to recognise and reward collaboration with the private sector, even on programmes of undoubted scientific excellence. The second is the insularity of many of our institutions, which expect the world to beat a path to their door instead of taking a leaf out of the commercial sector's book and marketing themselves globally. Perhaps industry could help here? Third, major UK institutions need to put aside their age-old differences and form partnerships that achieve global scale and excellence. We need to see the "golden triangle" of London, Cambridge and Oxford combine forces in key clinical areas if we are to rival places like Boston, San Diego and San Francisco. Other bioclusters of global significance could emerge in the North West (based on Manchester and Liverpool) and in Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee).

We must develop proactive strategy that creates scale in the therapeutic areas and medical fields in which we have traditional or emerging strengths. Immunology, cancer and regenerative medicine are just three examples. We should also use our strongest flows of funding to promote and reward collaboration – both between institutions and between the public and private sectors. This should be complemented by changes in rewards such as the REF and clinical excellence awards.

There should also be support for the clusters themselves, to create basic infrastructure and global marketing capability. The days of the UK being automatically on the shortlist for global investments are over and so we need to fight for our place, trumpet our successes and network aggressively, which may not come naturally to our leading scientists and clinicians!

It is also important that we do all this as the UK; promoting this corner of England versus that sliver of Scotland or Welsh valley must come to an end. Only when we pull together will we set ourselves apart from the competition.

These are issues under discussion at the Office for Life Sciences. Key to this dialogue is a deal-making mentality: if the UK increases or refocuses its support for life sciences leadership, what will industry contribute? Some of industry's quid pro quos will only come when greater UK competitiveness is demonstrated (clinical trial recruitment times and costs are a classic example of this). However, I believe there are some contributions that industry can commit to now.

What about seconding ABPI Bioscience Marketing Fellows to leading universities and health science centres, to help create their strategic marketing plans? Put industry's penchant for strategy, its marketing savvy and its knowledge of the global investment scene together with some of the world's most promising basic bioscience – now that could be a cocktail for competitiveness.

The Author
Dr Richard Barker is director general of The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
To comment on this article, email

22nd July 2009


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