Success in the life science field relies on both a highly supportive national environment and also mature local alliances between academia and the health service in pursuit of what in the US is called the “triple helix”: optimised combinations of health care, academic science and industry. But a recent independent review by Sir Paul Nurse on the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape1 concluded there are many factors inhibiting the UK from achieving its full potential as a scientific superpower. Policy volatility, a complex patchwork of structural components, inhibitory bureaucracy, and government funding that is well below the OECD average all need addressing at a national level. Despite these constraints, the UK Life Sciences industry players are the biggest investor in research, development and innovation in the life science sector with Foreign Direct Investment second only to the USA globally. Life Sciences have rightly been identified as a jewel in the British economy, with the sector generating a turnover of £88.9bn in 2020 with core Biopharma contributing £40.7bn.2
The campus opportunity
In the UK, as in other developed economies, research active hospitals and their university partners are committing to campus developments that are attractive to industry partners and inward investment. Having advised many initiatives of this nature, helping health boards, trusts and universities to develop R&D and Innovation strategies, or to leverage their mutual relationship and the campuses they share, some recurring themes stand out. There is ambition for growth, but it is not always thought through. Often the ambition is highly localised, particularly if it is a product of competition between universities, and it may lack proper market assessment and due diligence. It is perhaps difficult for local groupings to understand that in a global competition for investment it is not helpful to tell a very local, very small story. Nor does the Life Sciences industry see itself as an automatic cash cow – rather they are increasingly seeking genuine strategic partnerships. We recall a VP of one of the UK’s leading pharma companies saying that the UK is the only country which expects the company to provide resources to the other partners when it lands on a campus. Normally it is the other way round. Incentives are provided by the resident partners to get the firm to come.
So, there is an opportunity here, but we need to improve how we define and exploit it. There are some obvious successes – Cambridge, Oxford, London, Edinburgh and the Northern Health Science Alliance have enough assets in science, service and ecosystem to attract partners. But even these groupings have worked hard on campus strategy (e.g. The Cambridge Biomedical Campus Vision, the Paddington Life Sciences Plan, The Euston Innovation District Plan, the Edinburgh BioQuarter, and Liverpool’s iiCON).
The need for differentiation
Too often we find that the language used, by universities in particular, suggests that equivalence with the best of the Golden Triangle is imminent. Industry players then need to rely on their own assessments, and discovering the reality behind the language is not helpful for partnership development. So, campus partners, working together, need to be robust about themselves so they can communicate clearly and convincingly. We would suggest the following stepwise approach:
· Be honest about local capabilities in science, clinical services and the local ecosystem. Local champions are rightly enthusiastic about their cause. But objective, preferably independent, analysis with the use of comparators is crucial
· Once limitations are understood the campus strategy should determine how these can be offset by the right partnerships, networks and alliances, much in the way that Oxford enhances its access to computational pathology through membership of the Pathlake Consortium
· Be clear on the vision and objectives for developing the campus, the benefits to current and prospective campus partners and the benefits you intend for the wider ecosystem and local economic and social development. In particular, a focus on resolving clear and present patient and population challenges within years not decades will be key to maintaining the interest of the NHS partners
· Life sciences and associated technology are very broad fields. Selecting the segments to focus on (e.g. from pharma, biotech, health tech and digital) is important to exploit local strengths. These could be as much about the ecosystem as the campus itself. The health tech firms, for instance, may be as interested in regions where they can manufacture as well as research and innovate
· Scan the market properly – what do investors, developers, industry partners and philanthropists think of you? Where do you / could you feature in their strategies?
· The exploitation of health-related data has huge potential but is reliant on digital maturity, linkage and analytic capacity and sustenance of public trust, particularly when data is used for commercial purposes. An honest appraisal of these determinants is an important prerequisite
While you develop a concept for the campus it is worth turning to the process of attracting partners and investment:
· Create and sustain a “door and window” strategy – is there a clear front door for the potential investor to go through to navigate the campus and can they look through the window to see what is on offer before deciding to enter? It is easy for complex partnerships to be impenetrable. Clarity in terms of all the available assets creates competitive advantage
· Aligning the partners around a common aim is one of the key challenges with important implications for governance and leadership. Cultural barriers can be mitigated by permeability between partners, particularly between academia and industry. This could go as far as commercial structures such as formal partnerships, joint ventures and investment boards
· Introducing and consolidating collective research and innovation governance and pathways through to tech transfer and commercial development. This clear decision making on what will be supported and what will fail provides confidence for all partners. Governance, selection for support and support withdrawal are hallmarks of effective campus partnerships, which in turn attracts more industry interest, partnership and growth opportunities
· Demonstrating partner convergence – demonstrating that you speak on behalf of, say, both the university and the NHS. The governance structure can do this to an extent but showing you do this in relationships is important corroboration. This goes a long way with investors and industry players who may be scarred by previous engagement attempts where for instance trials are agreed and the set up financed but patient recruitment falters because of challenges elsewhere on the campus.
Much of what is said here is about defining and improving the local offer. It does not address the national conditions which influence investor behaviour. But as noted at the beginning of this piece the UK does well in life sciences investment in spite of sub-optimal government support. Being open for business in the ways we suggest will go a long way to growing the campus.
1. Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape Final Report and Recommendations. Sir Paul Nurse 2022 (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-development-and-innovation-organisational-landscape-an-independent-review)