Life Sciences

May 4, 2017

Join the party – let’s back ambition and celebrate Britain’s success in Biotech


Britain might not have produced any large new biotech enterprises like America’s Amgen, Biogen or Gilead, but there are notable successes for which the country should be proud.  It is against these which entrepreneurs and managers of today’s biotech companies should set their ambitions and measure their success.

It’s all too easy to look to failures – of markets, Government interventions and companies – indeed this was the theme in the book Science, the State and the City: Britain’s Struggle to Succeed in Biotechnology by Geoffrey Owen and Michael M. Hopkins published last year. Based on a rich analysis of the UK’s last 40 years of investment in biotech, they concluded that the UK has not succeeded in creating Bellweathers – as measured in terms of UK stock market valuations of therapeutic biotechs.

But has it failed?

If we consider success in a more holistic context, celebrate our successes more loudly and set our ambitions higher, UK investors may eventually get on board and back big winners – and join the ‘party’ that Neil Woodford and others have started.

So where are our successes to be celebrated? Astex Pharmaceuticals, a biopharma company with its corporate and R&D headquarters in Cambridge, UK announced in March this year that a new cancer drug that it co-invented in a collaboration with Novartis, had been approved for sale in the US by the FDA. This was a milestone moment – the drug targets a form of breast cancer and is predicted to become a blockbuster, and one of the top 10 drugs to reach market this year. It will deliver a revenue stream to Astex from milestones and royalty payments.

So this sounds like success for a UK biotech? But is it? And if so on what measures?

The Company was backed in its early days by a consortium of top-tier UK and US venture investors and built its business based on innovative British science. On its journey to raise sufficient capital to invest in its drug pipeline, it had to look to the US NASDAQ market through a $900 million M&A with a US-listed company – one of the top 10 M&A transactions of 2013. Transatlantic Astex was ultimately acquired by Otsuka of Japan. So today, is Astex a ‘British biotech’ company? And is the drug’s marketing approval a British success story? Or is it another example of UK science sold to more farsighted investors and organisations in the US and Asia?

On the analysis of Owen and Hopkins, Astex has failed. But surely this is wrong – should success be measured not just by the appetite of investors in UK-listed companies but by the wider measure of sales or employment, and economic returns – never mind the health benefits to patients or wider social returns? On these measures Astex has succeeded – it employs 130 staff at its Cambridge site – and is expanding, thus boosting the local economy and contributing to taxes. The drug that it helped to invent could well deliver top tier sales revenues and, undoubtedly, benefits to many breast cancer patients who have run out of options. More on Kisqali™ and the Astex UK success story can be watched here.

Owen and Hopkins, like many commentators, were also negative on Humira, a drug invented by scientists at Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT, now part of MedImmune/Astra Zeneca), but CAT spawned an antibody-revolution in Cambridge with many companies in the region benefiting from the cluster’s expertise, including F-star, Crescendo, Kymab, Abzena and others. MedImmune/Astra Zeneca is a major success for Cambridge employing thousands – and Humira, invented in the UK, is the world’s top selling drug, to the benefit of a large number of patients.

What are we missing?

The UK also has a major strength in the ‘tools and technologies’ space where innovation benefits from the close relations with its world-leading academic base (think DNA Fingerprinting, Next Generation Sequencing, antibodies etc.). Abcam, for example, is just one of many biotechs that rather than developing drugs is focused on enabling science and pharma R&D. It is listed on AIM and has a market capitalisation in excess of £1.5 billion. So a success in any book – apart from Owen and Hopkins’, where such category of company are excluded from their analysis!

And, thinking more widely of world-leading life science brands, the UK’s Wellcome Trust, expanded following the investment boost from the sale of Wellcome to Glaxo, is recognised worldwide as a driver of innovation in life sciences. I could go on …..

I encourage you to think about ‘what does success look like’ for British biotech, and encourage ambition and celebrate success.

We are actively contributing to this debate – see our partnership to create the PRISM movement. We are experts in helping diverse life science organisations to tell their stories – do get in touch to find out more about our work and expertise.

By Sue Charles, Managing Partner of Healthcare and Life Sciences