Why Boston Biotech Should Look to London


Xconomy Boston — 

Look at online forums for U.K. ex-pats working in the Boston-Cambridge biotech sector and you’ll find some very British obsessions—where to find a decent curry and where to get a cricket game. But korma and cricket aside, what would it take to lure these seasoned entrepreneurs back home? It’s a question that London has to crack if we are going to fully maximize our competitiveness in life sciences.

Boston is renowned as the richest life sciences ecosystem in the world, famously home to the highest concentration of companies within a two mile radius of anywhere on earth. It is the yardstick against which all other regions with ambitions to be global life sciences players measure their success. When MedCity—the organization I lead to promote and grow life sciences in England’s south east—planned to join the Mayor of London’s delegation to the East Coast this week, it was obvious that Boston would be our first port of call.

With closer scrutiny I would argue that the U.K.’s London-Oxford-Cambridge region can rival the Boston-Cambridge region on almost every count. Our top research universities are neck and neck with Harvard and MIT and often ahead, depending on which league table you look at. Our healthcare centers are embracing the bench to bedside approach to move innovation rapidly to patients.

And, at the risk of unwisely dipping a toe into American political controversies, the National Health Service is a terrific boon for research and industry—a large single healthcare system that maintains extensive longitudinal patient records. In London alone, it can provide access to over nine million ethnically diverse patients, over a third of whom were born outside the U.K.

There is also no shortage of ideas, innovation, or entrepreneurial zeal. So why, we ask ourselves, are so many companies and entrepreneurs still looking across the Atlantic instead of building their business on fertile home ground?

I spent much of the ’90s and noughties traveling between the U.K. and U.S. as part of Pfizer’s development team and, along with chronic jet lag, I developed some useful insights into the similarities and differences in the way the two countries do business. A strong impression was the great culture of collaboration over here, a pooling of expertise and knowledge that got things done faster and better.

It’s no longer the case that the U.K. is behind the U.S. in this respect—we have become passionately collaborative across academia, healthcare, industry, small and medium-sized enterprises, and charities. AstraZeneca’s Mene Pangalos, speaking at MedCity’s recent Healthcare Investor Forum at the London Stock Exchange, noted that the opportunity to work with universities, healthcare centers, and emerging biotechs is one of the key reasons his company remains firmly anchored in the U.K.

The USA’s big advantage is, of course, risk investment capital. From the U.K., there is a widespread perception that the streets of Boston are paved with venture capital gold. It would be foolish of me to try to claim that there is not still far more liquidity over here. But recent years have seen the U.K. make a marked resurgence, with investors realizing that there is a vibrant, exciting, and unique market offering opportunities that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

I’m not here to set up a false London versus Boston stand-off. In fact I think we make natural life sciences partners. There is huge traffic across the Atlantic in both directions that results in better health and more wealth for all of us. We are similar countries with similar health challenges that we tackle far more effectively when we work together. The fundamental understanding that collaboration is more beneficial than competition is the basis of MedCity, which was created by London’s three academic health science centers, Imperial College London, University College London, and King’s College London—competitors who know they are stronger together.

But I do want the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle to be just as obvious a place to do business as Boston. So my message to the Boston Brits is this—take another look back across the Atlantic and see the optimism, ambition, and large-scale investment that is animating this region.

And if all of this really can’t tempt you back, think about the weather—can you remember the last time London hit minus 18 degrees Celsius?

Eliot Forster is Executive Chair of MedCity, launched in April 2014 by the Mayor of London with the capital’s three Academic Health Science Centres to promote and grow the life sciences sector of London and England’s greater south east region. Follow @MedCityHQ

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