Ros Deegan had the exhilarating experience of raising $100 million to expand her biotech company in Oxford. However, her excitement was dampened by the lack of available laboratory space, forcing her to work from home regularly.
Similarly, biochemist Catherine Elton in Cambridge faced persistent frustration due to the same real estate challenges.
In order to continue growing her bioactive protein business, she taught herself how to convert old offices into functioning labs.
These two women are not alone in the struggle. Property consultants Bidwells revealed that the demand for lab space in Cambridge reached 1.19 million square feet (110,000 square meters), while only 7,000 square feet were available.
In Oxford, the demand stood at 850,000 square feet with only 25,000 square feet readily accessible.
The scarcity of state-of-the-art laboratories in these cities is just one example of how the lack of a comprehensive strategy for Britain’s life sciences sector is hindering the growth of promising companies.
In interviews with 17 individuals knowledgeable about the challenges, including biotech executives, property developers, industry insiders, and investors, a common frustration emerged regarding the absence of a coherent approach in Britain, encompassing lab space, funding, talent, suppliers, affordable housing, transportation, and utilities.
At a time when the United States and the European Union are heavily investing in facilitating the transition to newer technologies during the next wave of industrial transformation, these industry figures warn that Britain risks falling behind.
Founder of Qkine, Catherine Elton, highlighted the significant barrier of not being able to find a suitable lab space when establishing a company.
She revealed that office conversions accounted for over 20% of her firm’s time in the year before opening.
Ros Deegan, CEO of OMass Therapeutics, considers herself fortunate that her company only had to wait a year from fundraising to moving to a larger location.
She vividly recalls the challenge of finding a place to work, often ending up in the kitchen due to the lack of available space.
The life sciences sector is supposed to be one of Britain’s most crucial industries, generating £94 billion ($118 billion) in 2021 and employing over 280,000 people.
The government proudly touts Britain’s progress towards becoming a “science superpower,” with biotech ranking second only to the United States in terms of activity, driven by breakthroughs originating from universities in Cambridge, London, and Oxford, and aided by a centralized health system for clinical trials.
This has led to a surge in venture capital, much of it coming from the United States.
However, in minor cities which have ancient universities and focus on strict planning regulations, the arrival of new infrastructure has lost in an attempt to keep pace.
While developers anticipate improvements in capacity in the coming years, many experts argue that companies specializing in areas such as cell and gene therapies, genomics, and synthetic biology in Britain may be falling short of their full potential.
Diarmuid O’Brien, head of Cambridge Enterprise, an organization that focuses on commercializing research at the university, describes the current environment as “death by a thousand cuts,” with many spin-offs being acquired by U.S. companies or relocating across the Atlantic.
For instance, Humira, one of the world’s top-selling drugs owned by U.S. firm AbbVie, originated from technology developed in Cambridge. Illumina, a U.S. company valued at $33 billion, utilizes DNA sequencing technology that was also discovered at Cambridge and lies at the core of its operations.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s govt. has recognized the real estate trial and is seeing reforms to preparation rules.
The government spokesperson highlighted a recent announcement of over £100 million in funding aimed at upgrading infrastructure and equipment to provide world-class lab space and unlock the full potential of UK researchers.