30 May 2014Europe

MedCity: forging links in London’s life sciences industry

While London, Oxford and Cambridge have long been centres for innovation in the life sciences, with researchers there discovering penicillin and the structure of DNA, for example, the world around the ‘golden triangle’ with the three cities at its corners is changing.

The life sciences industry has undergone some significant adjustments in recent years. As blockbuster drugs fall off the ‘patent cliff’ and research efforts turn from small molecule therapeutics to biologics, the UK is changing its life sciences strategy so that it may stay competitive globally.

In 2011, the government launched its Strategy for Life Sciences initiative, aimed at making the UK a “world-leading place for life sciences investment” by adopting three key strategies: building a life sciences ecosystem, attracting, developing and rewarding the best talent, and creating incentives to promote healthcare innovation.

On April 8 this year, three London university colleges—Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London—along with the Mayor of London, strengthened the bonds between the three research hubs of the golden triangle with the establishment of MedCity, a new medical research initiative aimed at boosting collaboration between London’s life sciences businesses to cater for future medical needs.

“There have been some major changes in the life sciences industry, such as the way inwhich biotechs have grown around the world to begin to feed pharmaceutical medtech companies’ pipelines,” says Eliot Forster, who chairs MedCity and is chief executive of biotechnology company Creabilis.

“The needs of the health community and the needs of patients are ultimately different from how they’ve been in the past,” he adds.

“It’s much more difficult in some areas than it’s been in the past to look after a single patient, and understanding the data that fit with individual patients and addressing those needs are more complicated.”

The recent surge in mergers, acquisitions and IP exchanges in the life sciences industry indicates a working strategy for dealing with change: collaboration.

Launched with £2.9 million ($4.8 million) of funding from the Higher Education Funding Council of England and £1.2 million ($2 million) from the Mayor of London’s office, MedCity aims to encourage collaboration between life sciences companies and the academic base in London, in addition to attracting life sciences companies to the area.

King’s College London hopes that “MedCity will consolidate the cluster’s strengths, give them a coherent collective identity and showcase the expertise of the southeast cluster as the global landing place for international businesses and investors.”

MedCity, which was opened officially by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will also partner other UK-based research hubs, and has already signed a cooperation agreement with Cardiff’s new life sciences hub and the Northern Health Sciences Alliance, a partnership between universities and National Health Service (NHS) hospital trusts in the north of England.

Forecasting healthcare

"True to the UK’s strategy of adapting to a changing industry, instead of first identifying key research areas, MedCity’s role is to predict the healthcare needs of the future, Forster says.

“What we’ve tried to do with MedCity, which is perhaps a little different from some clusters, is to anticipate what the future might look like,” he says.

“MedCity has a responsibility to reflect the market back to its constituents; to help all those people who are in the MedCity environment understand what the market is doing.”

An ageing population means an expected rise in the incidence of degenerative diseases, such as osteoarthritis, dementia and cancers.

Forster continues: “As the market moves towards those areas, we would aim to quickly follow in the first instance then, with time, anticipate those needs and begin to drive that.”

MedCity’s constituent parts cover a broad range. The initiative brings together higher education institutions and the medical research units within them, as well as the NHS and government, both local and national.

There’s also involvement from the charitable sector: Cancer Research UK and the Francis Crick Institute, which focuses on developing an understanding of why certain diseases develop, and how to diagnose and treat them.

Nurturing start-ups

Forster says one of MedCity’s goals is to create a “front door” for businesses and individuals who want to interact with the London life sciences environment. “The goal is to make the pathway easier for them, and for international companies that may wish to set up research and development or innovation centres, or manufacturing in the region, as well as make new investments in start-up companies,” he says.

“Part of our aspiration is to help drive investment—by making it clear that the greater south east is an area where investors can find good ideas and good people—and to help support those people on their entrepreneurial journey.”

However, the country’s south-east region certainly has its draws, one being the “nearness of everything”, he adds.As a whole, Forster says, the UK is becoming a more attractive place to start up biotechnology companies, in part because of the Intellectual Property Office’s Patent Box scheme introduced last year, which provides an incentive for innovation by applying a lower rate of tax on profits earned from a company’s patents.

“Everything you may need to be a successful start-up in life sciences already exists: the people are there, the resources are there and finance is there,” he says.

Not to mention the different support services, including professional services, that will help companies carry out clinical trials or manufacture drug supplies. “It all exists in a relatively close proximity,” Forster says.

Global competition

The success of the companies based in the cluster will also depend on their adopting a good IP strategy, which Forster describes as “essential”.

“It almost goes without saying that IP is completely central to the economic model that MedCity relies upon.”

The arrival of the Unified Patent Court (UPC) could make enforcing patents easier for companies based in the cluster. Currently expected to come into force by early 2015, the UPC’s London court will hear cases relating to chemistry, including pharmaceuticals and the life sciences.

Forster has no illusions about the mountain MedCity has to climb to begin to rival established clusters, such as those in Boston and on the US west coast. However, it has something of a head start. “The first biotech started in Boston in the 1960s, so it’s taken 50 years to get to the position they’re in now,” he says.

“We don’t need to travel along the same learning curve, because much of what is needed is already here; it simply requires navigation to find it.”

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