Until recently, we would normally begin the opening sentence of a sector update with the words ‘In the last quarter’ reflecting what would be about to follow, writes Tony Jones, chief executive of life sciences membership organisation, One Nucleus.
Whether in terms of deals announced, product launches or investment raised, the region’s life science sector has continually delivered great news for some time. Recently nothing has felt normal however – or has it?
COVID-19 has changed what any one of us would consider normality. Social distancing, international travel bans and Open Innovation on a scale we could never have imagined as we have collectively sought to battle a common enemy.
The decades of investment, both public and private, into the region’s life science cluster have rendered it as well placed as any location to respond. Layer on that the excellence of our research base, world-leading innovation across multiple industries and the fact that invention and innovation run in the blood here, means you have a platform to respond quickly and at scale.
Some of that response has played directly into the national, and indeed international response to COVID-19, whereas some has fittingly supported the local need.
The UK life sciences sector started 2020 in great shape. It attracted over £300 million between December 2019 and February 2020. Not quite at the levels of the preceding year but still hugely impressive with both venture capital and public markets providing significant finance to enable our companies to progress their products through development.
A notable example in the region was the Freeline Therapeutics’ £61m investment from Syncona in December. Freeline has subsequently bolstered its senior team and just this week have announced that the FDA has granted Orphan Drug Designation for its novel Fabry Disease model.
We have also seen another regional star, Healx, announce its collaboration with Boehringer Ingleheim, applying its AI technology to the field of neurological disorders. These are examples of our strengths, but when COVID-19 struck we saw the true strength of the region’s sector come to the fore.
There can be no doubt of the importance of testing, vaccines and treatments to the way out of this period. As rapidly as March 23, the day the UK Government announced our version of lockdown, the Quadram Institute announced how it was part of the £20m national programme to use whole genome sequencing to start to understand the spread of COVID-19.
By April 7 we saw three of the region’s major players, AstraZeneca, GSK and the University of Cambridge come together to support the creation of a new testing lab.
We also saw great work from Cambridge Clinical Laboratories in coordinating the ‘smaller testing ships’ in the region in offering up support. This led to them joining with the national COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network to provide support to the work of the PHE and NHS testing laboratories.
Pulling together these numerous smaller providers, some not diagnostics labs but with molecular expertise to offer, addressed a key capacity challenge the central UK coordinators clearly found significant: It is a wonderful example of how our region is enabled by champions willing to play their part.
One of the strengths of the cluster here is the proximity of the different industrial sectors when it comes to needing inter-disciplinary solutions.
There have been some excellent examples of collaborations across the divides. Avacta collaborating with Cytiva springs to mind as life science meets engineering with the aim of developing, validating and manufacture their point-of-care test in double quick time.
Even within their own field, we saw manufacturers respond to divert normal manufacturing lines into producing much required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Just north of our patch we saw a great example at BoxMart. Their normal business is to produce bespoke cardboard packaging for everything from personalised gifts to hampers. Answering the call for PPE, BoxMart transitioned to focus on making single-use, reinforced PPE face shields, even finding scope to develop rainbow patterned child friendly versions.
It was an innovative and rapid change of direction when they knew our real heroes needed them. Availability of PPE became a serious matter as we are all aware. Again, the challenge was met with solutions in the region.
The University of Cambridge, with support from the likes of The Milner Institute, coordinated an extremely effective campaign seeking donations of PPE for NHS staff.
Utilising the product tracking technology of their spinout company RedBite, they established a local supply chain and distribution platform for donated PPE: Life-saving activity supported not only by those companies active in COVID-19 research but also by numerous neighbour companies ready to donate what PPE they had in their labs. Millions of items have been donated and put to the greater good.
And what of vaccines and treatments? It will be a huge and international R & D effort to discover, test, manufacture and distribute effective vaccines – that is for certain. Competition falls by the wayside when such a pandemic is upon us and collaboration at a global scale is what is required. We see AstraZeneca collaborating with Oxford University teams on developing a novel vaccine at scale for example and through the US Government DARPA programme collaborating with institutions from US and China to discover neutralising antibodies.
The innovation, collaborations and talent available in the cluster was a major draw for AstraZeneca’s relocation here and I am sure that engagement pipeline will play its full role in influencing how we emerge from COVID-19.
Important around this focus on the pandemic, however, is to remember that we will emerge from this period. Maybe our daily activities and thought processes changed to a greater or lesser degree but emerge we shall.
It is important to note therefore whilst we describe COVID-19 responses above, many of the life science businesses based here have adapted in the midst of all this to continue creating value, doing deals and ensuring the region emerges as strongly as possible.
We have seen fantastic news from the likes of Inivata who have launched the RaDaR Assay liquid biopsy product. Nanna Therapeutics has been acquired by Astellas Pharma, providing the resource to forge ahead with their age-related disease focused pipeline and Mogrify announcing its collaboration with Sangamo Therapeutics to leverage Mogrify’s iPSC- and ESC- derived T-cells.
Such news flow and progress leave the region in a position of strength when the new normality settles, perhaps taking a good slice from one of the seven >£1Billion dollar fund closings announced in the US during this period.
So yes, perhaps nothing day-to-day has felt normal, but look a bit more closely at the life sciences sector and perhaps we have to date under-estimated what day-to-day normal represents.
Meeting the challenges of COVID-19 has required a commitment to collaboration, a dynamically innovative mindset, a sense of community and a resilience to adapt quickly in order to succeed.
The nature of the life sciences sector and the entrepreneurs within it is one of being able to roll with the punches, take stock and then execute an amended plan.
Whether attacking COVID-19, driving forward in a different therapy area (those diseases have not gone away) or simply using expertise to reassure colleagues and contacts with adept interpretation of data, the region has delivered by the lorry load.
Of course, it is also clear that such regional contribution is only possible due to the investment over previous decades in attracting the brightest minds to such an effective ecosystem.
This last point I would hope to see policy makers remember when COVID-19 is something we refer back to and so the agenda of ensuring the UK remains a world force in life sciences does not overlook the need to continue investing that is based primarily on excellence not geography.
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