19 May, 2021 - 21:04

Zooming in on the future?

Covid-19 has posed challenges across every aspect of how we conduct our lives and business activities. It has been incredible to see how the BioMedTech sector has risen to so many of the challenges faced, writes Tony Jones, CEO of One Nucleus.

The achievements are in no small part due to some outstanding leadership, committed investors and a tradition of collaboration based on extremely strong networks.

There has been an immense amount of deal flow, collaboration and progress during the past year. Within the £1.39 billion of private investment reportedly raised by UK Life Sciences, this region stood out by contributing a remarkable >£700 million of that total to March 2021.

The latest figures suggest this year is on track to surpass even these record-breaking numbers, with the national sector raising £800m in the three months to end of February 2021. Such achievements reflect only part of the story, however.

Progress in creating vaccines, diagnostics and effective surveillance have relied upon collaboration at unprecedented levels. These collaborations, be they Academia-Industry, Small Company-Multinational Corporate, Industry-Regulator or completely across the bench-to-bedside supply chain have shown how a fight against a common enemy can change perceptions.

We have seen how local champion AstraZeneca has been at the forefront of the vaccine development globally. Centres of world-class excellence such as the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Quadram Institute have played key roles too, including in programmes such as COG-UK (Covid-19 Genomics UK) consortium. 

The synergism between data science, machine-learning and AI with biomedical research has been illustrated, making the launch of Cambridge-1 by NVIDIA potentially even more exciting news than when it was first conceived.

The growing popularity of the Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) in life sciences, accounting for approximately 10 per cent of SPAC IPOs this year so far, with thirty-two collectively raising >$7bn. 

This alternative route to an IPO is not new but is in vogue. Whilst UK companies require a greater depth of capital, SPACs are not the only option of course. London is not being left in the cold however with some companies selecting the Capital first such as this week’s Arecor announcement. 

There is plenty of scope for private capital access also. There has been a steady flow of US involvement – in particular investing in our emerging companies. BitBio, Phoremost, Inivata and CellCentric are all good examples. Exploring the growing trend, a number of theories have arisen. 

Could their attraction to this region’s young companies be aided by the increasing valuations in US clusters; the demonstration that our companies, such as Bicycle Therapeutics and F-star can navigate a route to Nasdaq given backing; or the pre-Covid policy measures such as the BioMedical Catalyst fund enabling companies to develop their innovation further be contributing factors to securing overseas investors? 

Could it also be that venture investors, once renowned for preferring to invest locally, have become increasingly comfortable and confident in deal making and trust building over video? When their investment decisions are driven primarily by the data, just maybe geography is now perceived as less critical.

If investment is flowing across borders, what of team building, innovation and scientific collaboration. The response to Covid-19 suggests collaboration can happen at distance.

Knowledgeable R & D teams sharing data if not time-zones has been effective. So too has the ability for senior leaders to engage with their teams, almost irrespective of distance.

Much of that progress will have been innovative by its nature, absolutely. A strength of an ecosystem such as this region however is the innovation that happens due to proximity and human contact.

Out of social as well as professional circles often emerges the next big idea or solution. Even with remote engagement more trusted, it is hard to imagine anything could replace the dynamism like-minded innovators have when clustering.

This aspect exemplifies why Cambridge has been and remains an essential part of addressing unmet global health needs – the ability to bring innovative minds, entrepreneurs and game-changers together for the unexpected.

When we have emerged from Covid-19 restrictions, it is hard to see why we will be unable to retain some of the skills we have had to learn. International deal-making driven by videoconference rather than travel; remote-based leadership teams deepening the available pool of scale-up talent accessible; and data-sharing with geographically dispersed centres of excellence. 

All these trends can contribute to aligning with increasing societal demands such as the drive to net zero, diversity and equity in global access to innovative medicines.

For many Covid-19 has made them question their need to relocate away from family and their homeland or to have a daily commute into busy urban areas to meet colleagues. 

The aspect contacts say they have missed most about all events being online-only is the loss of the informal, serendipitous face-to-face networking. One Nucleus can’t wait to provide that opportunity!

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