From sheep shed to Golden Fleece as Cambridge leads UK life science surge
Life science pioneer, Sir Christopher Evans – founding father of Cambridge’s biotechnology cluster around 35 years ago – well recalls the threadbare funding climate for biotech when he started his mission to put the industry on the map.
Having played a lead role in transforming the fortunes of biotech businesses, Sir Chris believes Cambridge can be in the vanguard for some time to come as Britain combats the dual threats of Brexit – with a potential stock market hit – and any lingering impact of COVID-19.
He says: “30 years ago we hardly had a single venture capitalist interested in this new emerging sector of biotech. We had no stock market (the rules hadn’t changed until I bombarded them with Celsis in Cambridge. Celsis was eventually sold for over $300 million with over a billion units of our little rapid test being sold.
“There were no London institutions who had a clue about biotech. PE groups were totally disinterested – indeed many still are today.
“Both Hermann Hauser and I have seen and helped catalyse the involvement of scores of public and private investors into highly innovative sectors. We must have raised well over £10 billion between us for everything over these years. And more has been returned from whence it came!
“Cambridge – like Oxford – has seen a huge influx of investors over the years. I think Cambridge has seen the better diversity of new overseas investors and, with the recent curtailing of the brave and bold Neil Woodford Funds, I think investment in Oxford companies may slow down as a result. Cambridge may well step up as it’s attracting plenty of interesting American and Chinese money in my view.
“With Brexit looming and the disappearance of Neil Woodford underpinning all the quality biotechs, we may see a real dip in the London biotech stock markets unless more overseas investors are brought in to fill that huge void.
“Over 90 per cent of the London investors backing biotechs seven years ago are no longer in the game. Ironically, Cambridge is brilliantly placed to play a leading role in the race to find vaccines and drugs that will help combat COVID-19.
“Never before in my working life, have I seen such commitment and energy being applied by governments and pharma and bioscience companies. It is the scientists who will lead us out of the COVID darkness and I expect Cambridge to be in the vanguard.”
Sir Chris beams with pride at how the Cambridge science cluster has boomed from such humble beginnings.
Contributing to Business Weekly’s 30th Anniversary edition, he writes:
“When someone describes you as being one of the godfathers of British biotech, it does make you wonder: Where did all the years go?
“The Cambridge Cluster has certainly earned its place in biotech history and to this day I’m proud to have been there at the very beginning. It was raw, exciting and the start of a roller-coaster ride that is still hurtling along at full speed today.
“In my case the beginning could not have been more humble – a couple of prefabricated sheep sheds at Babraham on the outskirts of Cambridge.
“As any entrepreneur will testify, your first company is always dear to your heart and Enzymatix was my first great venture. In only a few years, our company had flourished into a dynamic presence in a fledgling and innovative biotech community.
“Enthusiasm and commitment oozed from every enterprise in town and I’m proud to say that our own little team put mind, body and soul into making Enzymatix a success.
“Among our discoveries, was our work using cabbages and eggs to mass-produce phospholipids which were used in surfactants to help the very premature babies breathe. It was a breakthrough that resonates to this day as many of the babies saved are now young adults enjoying their lives.
“We had an eclectic mix of innovative scientific products including a micro-organsim that turned the colour of fish farm salmon pink through a novel fermentation process.
“In 1992 Enzymatix was split into different divisions that led to the formation of Celsis and Chiros (later Chiroscience).
“Celsis was formed to develop and sell rapid microbial testing reagents, kits and equipment. It was floated on the London Stock Exchange just a year later in 1993 at a valuation of $90 million. The success of Celsis opened the doors for the creation of the entire UK quoted biotech sector.
“Celsis was acquired by Charles River and today its customers include Colgate, Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, GSK and Merck.
“The principal objective of Chiroscience was to use its unique and patented chiral technologies in a way that maximised profitable applications within the pharmaceutical industry.
“The company rapidly became a major success because of the ability to manipulate single isomer versions of existing pharmaceuticals and produce better, safer drugs. We were able to develop a wide range of new chemical entities through the design of our chiral synthons portfolio.
“Along with Celsis, Chiroscience was one of the first biotechnology companies to list in the UK. Its share price tripled in value on the stock exchange and at one stage was valued at close to $1 billion and was ultimately acquired by UCB. Another Cambridge-made milestone!
“Even by the mid-1990s, the European biotech life cycle was still at a relatively early stage and there were no seed capital investors prepared, or sufficiently skilled, to make the necessary early stage investments backing speculative, high-risk bioscience research projects.
“The situation cried out for a new approach and I founded the Merlin group of companies that, over the following decade, would assess and back the most promising innovations and discoveries emerging from laboratories across the UK.
“Merlin Ventures was formed in 1996 and supported or created several exciting and unique medical companies such as Cyclacel (cancer); Microscience (infectious diseases); Biovex (cancer vaccines – sold for £1bn to Amgen); ReNeuron (an outstanding stem cells company to this day); Pantherix (antibiotics); Ark (gene medicine); Kindertec (baby care); and Vectura (drug formulation and delivery).
“Four years later, I formed Merlin Biosciences to focus on formal venture capital investing. The €247 million Merlin Biosciences Fund (Fund II) invested, at its peak, in 21 biotechnology companies and two medical device companies.
“From Merlin came Excalibur and a slightly new direction. Excalibur became one of the largest investors in the European bioscience market and led to the creation of pioneering UK ventures such as Arthurian (the first ever Welsh life sciences fund), Rutherford Health (the UK’s first proton beam therapy centres) and Arix Biosciences.
“The Excalibur group’s medical supplies division is now heavily involved in providing personal protection equipment and much-needed ventilators to healthcare organisations in the UK and internationally which are at the forefront of combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now my focus is firmly on cancer – the disease we all dread. Of course, there is no single cure for cancer but there are thousands of potential ‘horses for courses’ that could mean life-changing treatments for cancer patients. One of the major issues around the development of new cancer treatments is the clinical trials process.
“That process can move too slowly for those who have been diagnosed with the disease. I have founded Ellipses Pharma to make a difference.
“Working with Cambridge scientific entrepreneur, Dr Rajan Jethwa, a great team and renowned oncologists around the world, we are committed to finding the most promising new cancer treatments and progressing them at speed and scale through a trials process specifically designed by some of the world’s most renowned cancer specialists.
“Throughout my life, I have immersed myself in the challenging world of turning scientific innovations and discoveries into genuinely useful products. I’ve developed all sorts of treatments for illness but it’s those which can help people suffering from a multitude of medical conditions and illnesses that bring me the most satisfaction.
“I can safely say there has never been a dull moment and I would do it all again. I have a huge amount to thank Cambridge and its enduring brilliance for.
“You never stop learning and I have always approached the creation and founding of new ventures with the same ambition and energy as I did 35 years ago back in those sheep sheds. Here’s to the next 35 years!”