The bioscience boom buoying the East of England

Bio science laboratory At least a third of UK life sciences organisations are in the East of England

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Biotechnology is worth billions of pounds to the East of England and employs thousands of people. But according to experts the best is yet to come, so what is prompting the predicted boom?

The life sciences cluster around Cambridge already features 750 companies employing 15,000 staff and it is predicted to grow up to five times bigger.

Dr Andy Richards, one of the first people to explore the opportunities of bioscience in the city in the 1980s, is optimistic the cluster could "become very, very large", on a par with the world's premier cluster in Boston, America.

"Our trajectory is the same direction and the same scale," he said.

"With the likes of AstraZeneca moving here, with the new injection of capital that's coming from the venture capital world, it could be very large.

"I think one could be talking three, four, five times what it is now over the next few years. Certainly the opportunity market wise is there, if the capital is there, the ideas are there."

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What is biotechnology?

  • Biotechnology is the use of living organisms to develop or make useful products
  • The US Congress defines it as "any technique that uses living organisms or their products to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop micro-organisms for specific uses"
  • The word is a cross between the Greek words "bios" (relating to life) and "technikos" (the use of human knowledge and skills)
  • It can include the domestication of animals, cultivation of plants, and "improvements" to these through breeding programs
  • Today it also includes genetic engineering as well as cell culture technologies
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Cambridge and Norwich are already international hubs and great strides are being taken in the spheres of bioscience and life science.

The Norwich Research Park keeps growing in size. One of the most important scientific clusters in Europe, it was announced in July it is set to receive £26m of government investment.

Andy Richard Dr Andy Richards predicts a rapid growth in bioscience in the east of England

Dr Richards, a Cambridge graduate, was working as a technology consultant in the 1980s when he got the chance to see the US West Coast biotech industry at first hand.

"I just loved that Band of Brothers, 'let's change the world' mentality," he said.

"The opportunity came to do it here. The rest is history."

Dr Richards went on to found Chiroscience, which was later taken over by Celltech, and numerous other Cambridge ventures.

Start Quote

I think it's very important to UK PLC we get this right”

End Quote Dr Andy Richards

Today at least a third of UK life sciences organisations are in the East of England with a turnover between £8bn and £10bn. The main areas of expertise include cancers, vaccines, antibodies and stem cell research. The big players in Cambridge include Abcam and MedImmune.

Having a world-class university on the doorstep certainly helped in the early days. There were also a number of young entrepreneurs and local investors - and they stuck around.

"One of the great things to see was how people who succeeded decided not to go and live on a tropical island, but to stay and do their second, third, fourth or fifth company," said Dr Richards.

"That recycling of capital is very healthy in a cluster."

But future growth has its challenges.

"I think there are real infrastructure challenges in Cambridge," he added.

"I think it's very important to UK PLC we get this right and I'd really like to see a long-term investment of infrastructure that works for both the people and the potential growth of the cluster."

Laboratory of molecular biology The Laboratory of Molecular Biology is part of the new Cambridge Biomedical Campus

The decision by AstraZeneca to move its research centre and global headquarters to Cambridge has electrified the sector.

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If you get that infrastructure right that brings the best talent here... It's all about people, people, people”

End Quote Miranda Knaggs Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

The diggers are moving in to build the Cambridge Bioscience Campus, near Addenbrooke's Hospital. It is where AstraZeneca will be based, close to other research organisations including the Laboratory of Molecular Research and Cancer Research UK.

"The really interesting thing going forward are that while it was all originally from molecular biology, it's now being driven from patients side of things which I think is very good," said Dr Richards.

"Bringing the hospital in as a leading world research hospital is very important, it's no accident that AstraZeneca have decided to locate so close to patients."

Elsewhere in Cambridge the money is pouring in.

The Babraham Research Campus houses 50 biomedical start-ups, the government has put in £50m over the past three years to help it develop.

"At the moment we have no spare space at all," said Derek Jones, chief executive of Babraham Bioscience Technologies.

"We have a new building being built which opens in October but that's already full. We have a waiting list of 25 companies.

"Companies are extraordinarily keen to come to Babraham. They want to come to the Cambridge region obviously, but they want the access to the academic research in the Babraham Institute and to be part of a vibrant start-up community."

Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, capable of hosting 40 firms, is already full

Some 30 miles down the road in Stevenage it's a similar story.

In the shadow of GlaxoSmithklines's giant research HQ, the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst opened two years ago. It's an incubator with space for 40 firms, but it is already full.

Peptinnovate, is developing anti-inflammatory medicines to replace steroids, which have nasty side-effects.

"Here, we're right next door to the world's leading anti-inflammatory research centre," said Dr Andrew Lightfoot

"We can collaborate on a day-to-day basis with the scientists at GlaxoSmithkline, and that will help to progress our medicines through to the market."

Miranda Knaggs, the catalyst's marketing and sales manager said the centre operates a "bumper car model".

"We have our start-ups and then we bring on site the whole supply chain of investors, patent agents, regulatory affairs bodies, lawyers, to work with them," she said.

"If you get that infrastructure right that brings the best talent here, and that's what we believe we have. It's all about people, people, people."

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