Harriet Fear, ERBI's new chief executive
“The entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that biotechs have shown to date must stand them in good stead to weather the current storm.”
Harriet Fear is the new CEO of ERBI (www.erbi.co.uk ). She joins the team from the Diplomatic Service. She has worked in many British Embassies around the globe – across all continents. She has spent the last 10 years working in the commercial field, the latter five years of which she has led the LifeSciences Trade Team at UK Trade & Investment.
This role saw her leading the UK presence at major international events such as BIO and Medica and championing the international plans of biotech, pharma, healthcare and medtech companies throughout the UK. She also played a pivotal role in the selling of the UK lifesciences sector internationally, working with industry leaders to develop a LifeSciences Marketing Strategy for the UK. 1. Has the cluster gone backwards or progressed over the past five years? While it is true to say that the economic downturn is having an effect on every area of our lives, I firmly believe that the cluster is holding together well in the current climate. In my previous role I worked closely with a number of key industry players in the sector, many of whom have ridden the waves of insecurity over the years. Their advice continues to be that there is funding available, for the right product in the right market. Healthcare is not a discretionary spend and the sector itself is used to having to think creatively about where its next funding round is coming from. 2. To what extent does ERBi engage with other local clusters and is there a case for close co-operation? We all know that partnership is the by-word of most biotechs. And my approach with ERBI will be exactly the same. ERBI has a good working relationship with other clusters, both in the UK and internationally. I hope and expect to expand this further. In my role leading the national LifeSciences team at UK Trade & Investment, one of my key objectives was to get the UK ‘singing to the same hymn sheet’ about the strengths of our nation – whilst recognising and celebrating regional successes.
The relationships I established with the likes of London Biotech Network, Oxford Biotech Network, BioCity, BioNow and BioApproaches, to name but a few, I hope and expect will lead to even stronger collaborations between us for the good of us all. We also have plans at ERBI to formally strengthen our relationship with clusters in other EU countries for the benefit of our members (through our CEBR relationship). 3. Just how dire is the funding situation for UK Life Sciences companies at the moment? It is a difficult time for sure and we cannot be complacent. The entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that biotechs have shown to date must stand them in good stead to weather the current storm. I believe ERBI has a significant role to play here in supporting companies through this time – and our training programmes and activities in the short and longer term future will concentrate on helping companies to progress, and therefore the sector and cluster too.
For example Michelle Marsh in the ERBI team is our ‘shop window’ for supporting companies to access funds for up-skilling of their staff, helping to navigate them through the process and developing relevant training programmes for them. Although I am an eternal optimist, I do see examples of success in fund raising as recently as the last quarter of 2008 so it really isn’t all doom and gloom. 4. How are East of England companies doing compared to international competitors? I think it is a little artificial to talk about geography. I know that most if not all companies in the sector based in the East of England would consider themselves ‘born global’ and therefore very much international – with the same or similar issues and concerns as their partners, competitors or peers based in Copenhagen, Sydney or Boston. What is key to this region is the strength of the cluster and the network of support that is and can be accessed.
And I see ERBI very much as a key player here. In the current climate, we at ERBI will continue to do all we can to help our members strengthen. One of my early focus areas will be on opening more doors for our companies internationally. In our Embassies and Consulates around the world, in priority markets such as the US, Japan, Germany, Singapore etc, there are experts on hand to support UK companies access hot leads and opportunities in those markets. I know them well from my previous role within UK Trade & Investment. We will be forging closer links with them for the benefit of the sector. 5. Is biotech alone too narrow a focus for ERBI and should the cluster be leveraging healthcare innovation and medtech in general? ERBI was of course created to support the biotech community. Last year it adapted its model to incorporate the interests of the medtech community, formalising this in January 2008. I strongly believe that ERBI should and will continue to support the biotech community, a community to be proud of. And in the coming months we will be working hard to create new products and services which support the medtech sector too.
One of my early plans is to talk with as many members and potential members about their needs as possible. It is vital that what we do reflects the needs of the sectors – and I am a good listener! Invitations will issue in the very near future for discussion fora where we will be looking to guage the concerns/interests/issues of the community and hone current plans and put new plans and activities in place which will support the sectors into the future. And there are many similarities between biotech and medtech companies. Many companies cannot be crow-barred into either one of these tight definitions. For example, in much of the novel healthcare technology being developed, we see less and less distinction between the two – as the developments rely on engineering and biology in equal measure. At ERBI we plan to create platforms for both to support and learn from each other. 6. How can the region maintain its European lead in biotechnology? The region, I would suggest, needs to continue to work hard on bringing the science from the lab into the market. There is always more scope for researchers and industry working in collaboration. The region has shown and continues to show that it can attract leading companies from all over the world. The recent example of Pfizer creating its centre for regenerative medicine is a great example of this. It is about collaboration and partnership and paving the way for open innovation. The latter is the great lifeline for our small companies and helping them to strengthen links and relationships with the big hitters who in turn are having to tighten their business models has got to be a priority – thus relying more on the culture of open innovation. This region is particularly well placed in this respect. One of the strengths of the region is its compact cohesion. Companies working together for mutual benefit – the sheer number of support services available in the community is one obvious benefit – from patent lawyers to financial advisers, business angels and the VC communities. 7. What are the key areas for success in the future? The identified life sciences economic drivers that we are working towards (in response to market trends) are: novel therapeutics, healthy ageing, stratification (food and medicine), bioscience underpinning the low carbon economy and food, health and wellness. So there is likely to be a big focus on ways of keeping people healthy and well for longer – both with new medicines and different lifestyle choices, many of which have a genetic / biotech / medtech platform underpinning them. With the current financial climate, it seems it is vital to have a product or company which will resonate and be of interest to big pharma (or large biotechs!). It’s important too to remain mindful of what the healthcare industry needs and patients of course. More broadly speaking, it is vital that the region pays attention to where the biotechs and medtechs of tomorrow are coming from. ERBI will be working hard on strengthening the skills and expertise of the managers and CEO’s of tomorrow – whether it be working with Post Docs and Phds and offering them training for them to set them up to run companies in the future or creating or working with others on mentoring programmes. 8. What new opportunities might there be for East of England companies and how can you help? I have talked in a previous edition of Business Weekly about the opportunities presented by the 2012 Olympic Games. A fantastic opportunity for East of England companies to showcase their talents to an international audience. I will be creating a comprehensive strategic plan to enable ERBI members (and potential new members!) to benefit from the business the Olympics will bring, giving them access to timely information about possible tender bids and other hot business opportunities. The expansion of Addenbrookes also brings with it greater opportunities for collaboration. 9. Are there other sectors ERBI is interested in? Of course. As well as the broad biotech and medtech communities, there is the whole area of companies in the converging technology space to consider and provide for. I am keen that we look to enhance our offer and therefore our membership and our various support networks to become more broadly lifescience than purely pure health biotech. For the good of all across the broad lifescience spectrum. For just over a year now Jeanette Walker has been running the East of England Stem Cell Network (EESCN) in addition to her role as ERBI's Business Development Director. The field of stem cells and regenerative medicine is growing at a rapid pace and ERBI shares EESCN's ambition of making sure that this region prospers in terms of economic output as well as patient benefit from the research that is taking place both here in Cambridge and beyond. 10. Do you approach the future of the East of England cluster with optimism or pessimism going forward and why? With optimism of course! I would not have taken this role if I did not believe that the future is bright and that the sectors are pivotal to the UK economy and the UK reputation. In my last five years working in the lifesciences area, I have been asked many times which has been the most inspiring company I have come across.
And it is a question I cannot answer. Genuinely. Because without exception, all the UK companies I have met have been inspiring. Passionate about what they do and why and wholly committed to making a difference to the individual and/or the environment. I am honoured to be leading ERBI into the future and to being a part of this vital community of business people.