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12 February, 2018 - 23:09 By Judith Gaskell

Sanger Institute unveils new weapons in battle for skills

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge is piloting a new paradigm in recruiting and retaining the talent required to keep the world renowned organisation – and the Cambridge cluster as a whole – at the forefront of global life science innovation.

Associate director Julia Wilson told a life science forum run jointly by Business Weekly and law firm Mills & Reeve that Sanger had evolved its outreach programmes and recognised that the skills battle was one it had to win.

The Sanger Institute spearheaded the historic mapping of the human genome and remains a global thought leader. Wilson said that to win the fight for top talent despite a perceived skills dearth Sanger had decided to develop from within.

“We want mathematics and computing applied to medicine and we have a huge shortage of these skills in the UK – and Brexit’s not helping,” she said. The organisation is to start its own degree apprenticeships at Anglia Ruskin University later this year.

Wilson said: “If we can develop the special skills that we have on our campus and then connect to others in the Cambridge cluster we will be able to keep Cambridge in the forefront of life sciences and remain one of the key places for genomics in the world in the future.”

Sanger is also looking beyond science for graduate recruitment, including to language graduates. “Language skills are fantastic for bio data,” Wilson said. To attract this wider pool of graduates one had to tap into the “you can change the world” driver in people.

Unlike in the US, Cambridge’s intellectual skills were in a much more concentrated hub and that was something the region should capitalise on, said Wilson. Collaboraiton had been key to her own organisation’s success after it had looked to move on following achieving its original goal 25 years ago of sequencing the human genome. 

“We had to reinvent ourselves at that stage and start to engage and collaborate a lot more,” she said. This led to Sanger Science, which makes all its data and bio resources available free to the rest of the scientific community.

“Everything that we produce – our data, our methods, our products – are made freely available to the scientific community. We want people to take them and improve them and innovate on them. Our mission is ‘health over wealth’.”

The organisation balances that open access collaborative science with commercialisation that has already spawned four active Sanger spinouts. Wilson said: “We’ve had to be quite imaginative about how we can build commerciality on top of open data.”

She said The Wellcome Genome Campus had a very different purpose from the Sanger Institute, with an emphasis on becoming an international centre for business, enabling companies working within genomics to thrive.

It was also developing an entrepreneurial culture with its BioData Innovation Centre, bringing together small and medium sized companies with academia.

Fellow guest speaker Trevor Baglin, venture partner with life sciences-focused investment firm Medicxi, said the Cambridge life sciences sector was like one big pharma company.

The Cambridge biotech sector is a portfolio of companies with assets all working very closely together, interchanging changing staff and ideas and skills, he said.

“We might not be a single organisation but we’ve probably got as good a portfolio as any Big Pharma player. Many of us have worked in other companies, we’ve often worked with each other and it’s very fertile ground for new ideas and a constant flood of new people coming out of the university into this eco system.”

He said this keenness to collaborate was a great strength. “Lots of people know each other, lots of people have worked together in other lives in biotech and there’s a great willingness for us all to help each other. I’m constantly amazed how easy it is to make contact with people and have a chat.”

As the sector changed Cambridge was set to continue to benefit, Baglin said. “The way pharma’s changing is absolutely playing into our hands. I don’t think there’s any better time to be in the business that we’re in when pharma is going to have to really sort itself out and change its model really radically. Cambridge is incredibly well placed.”

Baglin felt that Big Pharma companies were set to face a decreasing return. “As better and better treatments are available to patients the room for improvement is getting smaller and smaller and they are getting diminishing success from their internal R & D, so I think next five years will see a big change in pharma with Big Pharma rationalising their portfolio.”

He felt Cambridge would also benefit from a growth in commercial research organisations (CROs). “The CROs are biotechs in their own right and many of the CROs have their own development programmes. I think these CROs are emerging in a way that’s very different to other parts of the world and this helps us navigate this early clinical development.”

Both Baglin and Wilson felt that if people could be attracted to the Cambridge life sciences sector they could spend their whole careers in the  cluster due to its close knit collaborative community. 

Baglin said: “Someone can have a full career in Cambridge but they will work in multiple different companies in multiple different teams like you might do if you were working for a huge pharma company.”

They were joined in a panel discussion by Harriet Fear,  former chief executive at One Nucleus and currently chief consulting officer with MAP BioPharma.

Fear also believed that Cambridge had the right skills for the future. “How brilliantly positioned we are in this part of the UK in terms of the expertise we’ve got in the tech sector as well as the life science and healthcare sector. 

“If you look at the trends that are taking place it’s all around exciting issues like robotics, artificial intelligence and stratified and personalised medicine . These are all things this region is exceptional at and we should be building on the opportunity.”

Mills & Reeve’s fast-growing life sciences team, headed by James Fry, pulled together the evening on behalf of Business Weekly and it is hoped that this will be just the first of many such initiatives between the organisations designed to broaden the reputational capital of the Cambridge cluster around the globe.

• Pictured from left to right: Trevor Baglin, Julia Wilson, Harriet Fear and James Fry

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