Photo: Birmingham BioHub
5 June 2016Biotechnology

Biotech in Birmingham: Alta Innovations’ story

Clustered around the imposing 1930s façade of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham is one of Britain’s fastest growing concentrations of biomedical companies.

Driven by world-class research published by the 6,000 hospital clinicians and university academics working at the adjoining University of Birmingham, the cluster attracts millions of pounds of research funding every year. With the UK’s new high speed rail network due to connect Birmingham with London by 2026, far-sighted companies have woken up to the cost-saving advantages of locating away from Britain’s overheated south-east region.

James Wilkie, CEO of Alta Innovations, the commercial spinout of the University of Birmingham, says the city’s biomedical cluster provides all of the advantages of London, at a fraction of the cost.

“We have world-class academics producing world-beating research in a living environment that is hard to beat.

“Every year there is typically £230 million of biomedical research funding into our cluster. When you consider the total of the university’s academics combined with the large number of Queen Elizabeth’s National Health Service clinicians, that makes for a huge intellectual resource base.”

Alta Innovations is involved in the commercialisation of more than 30 spinout companies using the university’s intellectual property technologies with a collective value of more than £200 million.

Wilkie explains that the university provides space for companies to develop through every stage of growth.

“We can offer entrepreneurs the option of incubating their start-ups at our state-of-the-art BioHub, which provides exceptional laboratory facilities at a very reasonable cost.

“At the other end of the commercial spectrum we have the Binding Site, another venture in the region with origins at the university which now employs more than 500 people with sales of more than £50 million a year in over 100 countries,” he adds.

“A common problem we previously encountered was that when one of our companies was ready to expand, they felt the need to move away from the cluster through lack of growing space.That’s not the case any more. We can provide the space to allow companies to grow organically.

“There is the 40,000 square foot Selly Oak life science campus, which is only a ten minute walk away. When the campus comes fully on stream in 2017 it will provide ample growing space for any company,” he adds.

Wilkie is equally keen to stress that doing business in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, brings with it a standard of living comparable to that of anywhere else in the UK.

“Surrounding the biomed cluster are Victorian homes in village neighbourhoods which in London would require a lottery-win to own. This is not the case in Birmingham,” he says.

“Businesses benefit from an extensive network of business, science and technology, and on-site teams offer invaluable advice and access to research expertise.”

“In addition to this, within ten miles of the university, there are ten of the best secondary schools in the country; again this is testament to the city’s drive to create a great place to bring up a family. Within the decade, all of this will be just three quarters of an hour from central London,” he adds.

Wilkie’s advice to biomedical tech companies couldn’t be any simpler: “Get in now while Birmingham is such great value.”

One of the central attractions of Birmingham’s biomedical cluster is the creation of the BioHub, a £7 million state-of-the-art life science facility.The BioHub has 4,500 square feet of biomedical laboratory space; shared space is offered to tenants while further individual laboratory units are planned with completion due in 2017.

Advantages of location

Wilkie points out that one of the earliest tenants, Abingdon Health, is working with Alta Innovations to develop a range of rapid testing products using IP owned by the university.

Abingdon Health’s CEO Chris Hand recognises the advantages of locating its research base at the university.

“Quite quickly we recognised the benefits of being within this cluster of medicine and academia which, aligned with great facilities, allowed us to expand and grow.

“The tenant costs were marketed as reasonable and as the facilities save us the steep cost of investing in expensive capital equipment, we realised there was real advantage in locating our operations here.

“As the fees are a flat rate this enables start-ups to budget more effectively,” he explains.

Since the BioHub opened in April 2015, new tenants have come from the point of care, food technology and molecular diagnostics sectors. One such company is Linear Diagnostics, a medical diagnostics spinout of the University of Birmingham. Linear Diagnostics is developing a bioassay platform that can detect and quantify a wide range of analytes, such as bacterial pathogens, viruses, proteins, DNA and small molecules, using a combination of a novel bio-nanoparticle and an optical detector.

Adjacent to the BioHub, within the Birmingham Research Park, is the BizzInn, an incubator for local high-tech entrepreneurs. Through an exciting new collaboration between the university, Alta Innovations and Innovation Birmingham, the region’s support for innovative high-tech small and medium-sized enterprises in the life sciences and digital sector is being dramatically enhanced. With financial assistance from the European Regional Development Fund, a holistic and structured programme of support has been created that nurtures enterprise and builds a distinguished ‘place’ for high-tech businesses to develop and grow.

As a consequence, BizzInn members benefit from a variety of free services: a secure incubation space; help with access-to-finance; professional advice and mentoring; training; networking; and development opportunities through expert workshops.

Wilkie says a supportive environment makes a world of difference to the prospects of start-up businesses. He cites evidence from UK Business Incubation which underpins the value of clusters.

“The evidence has shown that such locations have proved to increase the survival rate of new companies from 50% to 80%.

“Businesses benefit from an extensive network of business, science and technology, and on-site teams offer invaluable advice and access to research expertise.

“Alta Innovations provides advice to the cluster’s academics and clinicians if they want to commercialise their invention,” he adds.

“Britain has always been brilliant at innovation but less so in turning those clever ideas into global commercial success stories. That’s where Alta Innovations can help out.Alta provides advice on investment, IP protection and business strategy, the type ofhelp which can give a new business that all-important leg-up on the ladder to success.”

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