Last summer, I persuaded my 10 year old son to watch the latest Cinderella with me on a long haul flight to DC. At the end of the film, his rather disinterested conclusion was that it would have been better if they had told more of the Prince’s story. I protested (futilely) that this remake had a lot more of a back story on the Prince in comparison to the Disney animated film from my youth. He switched happily over to an action film, but it left me thinking about the richness we gain from other perspectives in the story.
For example, I love the much underrated film Hoodwinked because it looks at the Red Riding Hood tale with all perspectives explored, including that of the Big Bad Wolf. But before you stop reading, believing this blog to be a weird "Film 2016" imitation, I'll get to the point: seeing things from different perspectives adds dimension to understanding a complex problem.
The complex problem we addressed this week at BioTrinity 2016 is how we advance the British biosciences cluster to not only keep up with the Big 3 in the US (Boston, San Francisco, San Diego) which keep growing and advancing in technological range and entrepreneurial dynamics; but how we enhance the translational impact within the UK amongst academia, SME biotech, the biopharmaceutical industry and healthcare. In their book released last week Science, the State, and the City, Geoffrey Owen and Michael Hopkins point out an interesting and frustrating fact: "In biotechnology, by contrast, it has proved more difficult for firms outside the first-mover nation to match the success of the American pioneers." They argue that the reasons for this are bound up in the "US Innovation Ecosystem" which resists being fully recreated anywhere else in the world.
"One could say that the UK suffered from making a false start, with ill-informed investors piling into the sector in the expectation of rewards that never came – except to a fortunate few who bought and sold their shares at the right time." (p223)
There are many other points that I will leave you to read for yourselves in this very engaging book, but what I think is missing from this account, and in most accounts of biotech clusters, is the "software" of translation, collaboration and entrepreneurialism. The focus has largely been on the "hardware" – that is the elements of a cluster, the size and quality of those elements (e.g. academic strengths of the university, numbers of spin outs, deal rates, venture capital available, number of biopharma companies (mid-cap and large-cap)) and their trends. This isn't to say that "software" isn't mentioned; the comparison of culture and managerial capabilities are ubiquitous. However, these elements are described as properties, with training and experience as a solution, rather than seeing the more dynamic importance of how people connect – with each other and with ideas.
This "software" and its evolution was the focus of our workshop at BioTrinity 2016, which was titled "The other side of the innovation ledger: changes in early-stage sourcing and deal-making" chaired by Jon Rees (@BiotechJon) and including a powerhouse panel of colleagues: Peter Hamley, Global Head, External Innovation and Sourcing LGCR, Sanofi; Matt Foy, Partner, SR One; Richard Mason, Head, J&J Innovation London; Kevin Johnson, Partner, Medicxi Ventures; and Andrew Clempson, Research Policy Manager, Association of the Medical Research Charities (AMRC). The discussion introduced the growth of new players in the UK biotech scene (and not exclusively to the UK scene, of course) such as corporate venture capital (CVC) and charity venture capital. Jon linked the growth of CVC to the financial collapse of 2007/08 which left the sector on the rocks. However, the CVC have stayed and even "doubled down" in their investments as growth in investment returned to the UK biotech sector. Adding to this mix, the research charities, which are particularly strong in the UK, are expanding their roles in direct early stage investing, often in partnership with CVC.
However, beyond the introduction of the growth of these new players, what really struck the audience was the growth in the sophistication, range and diversity of engagement in early stage investment and sourcing. We heard the different styles of investing reflected by these organisation and how deal-making has evolved and differentiated, reflecting the opportunities in the UK, the community of entrepreneurs that is emerging and innovation in process of translating breakthrough science into breakthrough treatments. If we really want to build a UK life sciences cluster that is globally leading, that reflects the character and potential of British science, we need to turn the focus of our policies on the 'software' of collaboration and entrepreneurship, worrying less about league table numbers and more about building the potential to create and evolve.
Which brings me back to Prince Charming and the Wolf, both of which have been caricatures of how "Big Pharma" is portrayed in the story of biotech spin outs and start-ups. As the BioTrinity panel made plain, neither of those caricatures holds true and moreover, this framing limits our understanding of how collaboration and investment with biopharma companies take place today. It also doesn't help us understand the complexity of the challenging problem of advancing the UK life sciences cluster and what to do about it; and so to this challenge, I will offer my son's suggestion: let's spend a bit more time hearing all of the stories.