UK industrial strategy and the life sciences sector

By Malcolm Weir, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Heptares

Parliament picBefore Christmas, two important papers were released by HM Government namely the Industrial Strategy White Paper and the Life Sciences Sector Deal.

The first of these is a broad-based policy document representing the Government’s view of how best it can work with business and the wider community to create jobs, and increase growth and productivity.  Its policies include commitments to increased R&D expenditure, improvements in technical education and availability of people with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills, transport and digital infrastructure investment, and regional initiatives. At its heart though, is what they term ‘business environment’ policy which reflects the reliance of the UK economy on certain high value-add world-class industrial sectors such as life sciences, automotive, technology, and construction alongside improving the relatively low productivity of much of the rest. The approach laid out is rational and coherent, and had been broadly welcomed by industry. Since some unfortunate state interventions in the 1970s, there has been a reluctance for government to be seen to get involved for fear of meddling in the market – although it has to be said that successive administrations have taken positive steps to make the UK by common consent to be one of the best places in the world to do business. The truth is though, as has been seen in the US, new industries emerge in environments where governments, universities, investors and industrialists/entrepreneurs work closely together and barriers to translation of ideas through to the market are minimised. To do this requires a strategy to be drawn up, supported and monitored.

Turning to our principle subject of interest – the life sciences sector – the ‘deal’ follows hard on the heels of the review by Sir John Bell and colleagues and largely seems to commit to its recommendations. The life sciences sector is very strong in the UK in spite of the trend to pharma downsizing, which has been to a large degree balanced by the growth in biotechnology – Oxford, Cambridge and London being the third largest global biomedical and biotechnology cluster (after Greater Boston and San Francisco). This growth has come hand in hand over the past 20 years with improved tax incentives, direct grant funding, increased management expertise, facilities, technology transfer and so forth – all built on top of a world class biomedical science base with critical mass.

As well as at very least preserving these advances, key issues remain to be addressed and are discussed in the document. Getting the most from the NHS by facilitating clinical trials and accelerating access to innovative new medicines through the Accelerated Access Collaborative would make a big difference to all parties (biomedical, industrial and patient) and could make the UK consistently a territory of choice for drug development. Easy, rapid recruitment and a welcoming environment for skilled people from overseas (obviously post-Brexit for EU people, but ultimately the pool is global) is critical both for academia and industry, especially rapidly growing specialised start-ups. Greater investment held for longer periods (‘patient capital’) by the likes of pension funds and from specialist healthcare funds is needed to enable small companies to scale up. Apprenticeship schemes will be used to address skills gaps. There are a variety of other initiatives laid out in the document which can be skim-read quite easily.

In summary, the Life Science Sector Deal has as far as I can see been well received by the various stakeholders and should probably be declared a ‘good thing’. Some of it is about ways of working together, which is about being bothered and making things happen. Much of it requires continued or increased committed public and private funding, which of course in turn depends on the UK’s economic performance and on competing pressures for money. Obviously there is much concern about Brexit, but that will pass and there is reason for optimism that a sensible deal will be struck. Whatever happens in the wider political landscape it is vital we make the most of the opportunities that present themselves.

Malcolm Weir - New PhotoMalcolm is Chief R&D Officer of Sosei and CEO of Heptares, its wholly-owned subsidiary. Following many years in Glaxo Wellcome and in biotech, he co-Founded Heptares in 2007 with Fiona Marshall, Chris Tate and Richard Henderson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge) based on unique technology for structure-based drug design to G protein-coupled receptors. The company now has drugs in the clinic for Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, psychosis and cancer. He is Visiting Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London, where he received BSc and PhD degrees in Biochemistry and Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and received the RSC’s Malcolm Campbell Memorial Prize in 2015, and an Honorary DSc from the University of Hertfordshire in 2016. He is a Trustee of the Biochemical Society.

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