24 January, 2021 - 22:21

Growing into the East of England Life Sciences gap

There is much to be proud of when reflecting on the success of Life Sciences in the East of England – witness the astonishing contribution academia, companies and the region’s NHS have made to the COVID-19 response, writes Tony Jones, CEO of One Nucleus

Success did not start in 2020 however, with outstanding breakthroughs occurring across many decades before: Breakthroughs in areas such as the structure of DNA, monoclonal antibodies, genomics and structural biology as well as the foundation of world-leading companies such as Cambridge Antibody Technology, Solexa, Abcam, Astex Therapeutics, Kymab, and many more.

Let us not dwell too long on what is in the rear-view mirror but rather focus on what we have and what we could have in the future. Sustained public and private investment in world-class research and development has seen the region reach significant critical mass across multiple, increasingly inter-related disciplines.

Fields such as biomedical research, Artificial Intelligence, digital technologies and engineering continue to converge towards the creation of better healthcare solutions and patient outcomes.

Innovation will often be driven at the interface of disciplines so perhaps it is not surprising that the region is a hotbed of new ideas and value creation in every sense. Perhaps the Life Science industry in the region could be five or even ten-fold larger when we enter future decades. 

If we consider what the future of biomedical R & D, HealthTech technology and society may hold, then it would appear the ingredients for an amazing future are in place. 

The emergence of understanding of the microbiome with its links to health and wellbeing is here. Quadram Institute and Microbiotica are among examples already establishing how our relationship with our own microbiome can inform how we respond to nutrition, environmental factors, diseases and the prescription drugs used to treat suggesting potential to scale an industry here targeting precision wellness, increasing longevity of health-span not just lifespan. 

Synthetic biology, already a strength here with companies such as Evonetix, has the potential to revolutionise key aspects of how we live. It has potential to impact the whole innovative medicines cycle across how we study diseases, validate new therapeutic targets, manufacture medicines and drug delivery. It could also impact the relationship with the environment. 

Engineering production of therapeutic proteins such as vaccines is being shown to be faster and cleaner in a climate sense by Leaf Expressions Systems and creating lab-grown meat in a move towards more sustainable food production is exemplified by Higher Steaks. 

Growing an industry that can absolutely claim to be clean, hi-tech, attracting a high value talent pool and creating manufacturing jobs holds immense potential to contribute to scaling up our cluster. 

Focused at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, the field of cell and gene therapy has potential to change lives in a very precise and targeted manner, hence the dynamic research, policy and investment landscape that exists. 
Rooting the whole value chain in the region via the Manufacturing Catapult is creating the potential for exponential growth in jobs, investment and patient benefit. 

These are just some of the fields that could help scale our cluster, but with a caveat. Such success is dependent on all parts of the jigsaw being present, world-class and at scale.

Looking at our assets, I can’t help but feel it is like reviewing a legal contract. It is easier to spot what is already there and decide if you like it or not, but much harder to detect clauses that are not there but that you need. We must not assume all the pieces will be here without making it happen. 

Real estate developers and serial entrepreneurs are stepping up to the plate. Public funding of the underlying science base is required, so securing access to the European Horizon funding post Brexit has been key. 

Perhaps one piece we need to truly complete a scaled-up jigsaw is to attract later stage and larger investment that enables our nascent companies to remain independent longer, develop their value chain and create return on investment for every stakeholder in that journey. 

I feel history has created a situation where the region’s BioMedTech sector can see a very bright and high growth future, creating products and technologies that will be life-changing for patients, sustainable and at much larger scale across the whole of the region. I look forward to seeing that journey develop in the coming years.

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