London Notebook: Conversations Inside The Biomedical Golden Triangle

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of Cambridge, UK-based Bicycle Therapeutics. Before Bicycle, he criss-crossed the Atlantic, setting up Pfizer’s gene therapy group in London. Now he’ll steer Bicycle, a company started in 2009 to develop drugs from synthetic peptides. He’ll be moving some operations to the American Cambridge “to take advantage of accessing the best people in both places,” which Lee told me a few weeks later via email.

Back at dinner, the conversation shifted toward the U.K.’s pool of entrepreneurs. While many pointed out the U.K. was doing quite well starting companies from a population of 64 million, compared to the 320 million in the U.S., Lee noted how U.S. venture firms did a good job building a “deep bench,” specifically by hiring entrepreneurs in residence, or EIRs, to help them grow new companies.

That touched a nerve for Matthew Foy, the lead investor in the U.K. for GlaxoSmithKline’s SR One fund. He said EIRs in the U.K. are risk averse, looking askance at future rewards coming through equity holdings. “They want salary,” Foy said. “It should be entrepreneurship at risk instead of entrepreneurship with a nice salary.”

Simon Kerry, the CEO of Oxford-based cancer drug developer Karus Therapeutics, offered his own view of another difference between American and British entrepreneurs. “U.S. biotechs tend to be product-focused and talk about where innovation is needed,” Kerry said. “In the U.K., CEOs talk about where their science is coming from.” In other words, they look back instead of forward.

Not everyone agreed. “If my CEOs talked like that,” said SR One’s Foy, “they wouldn’t be CEOs for long.”

The talk of entrepreneurial mindset made me think of Silicon Valley, where the growing convergence of the freewheeling, unregulated tech world and the more deliberate, regulated life science world is creating fascinating cultural, strategic, and product development overlap. Take, for instance, the launch of a new bio-focused Andreessen Horowitz fund, headed by a polymath Stanford University professor.

London and its environs aim to capture some of that foment, as well. Digital health has begun to carve a niche, helped by an institute at University College London and other efforts.

Synthetic biology is another cutting-edge discipline that has just begun to move from academia into the commercial world. It’s the practice of engineering new functions into biological parts—or creating new parts entirely—for medical, agricultural, and industrial purposes. One of the field’s leaders, Richard Kitney, runs the The Institute of Systems and Synthetic Biology at Imperial College. Kitney and his Imperial peer Paul Freemont co-direct a U.K. group dedicated to turning academic synthetic biology work into startups and products. (More to come on this: I’ll soon post a separate Q&A with Kitney, who met with me in his office one morning on the Imperial campus in the old Royal School of Mines building.)

Extending biology in radical ways is nothing new to the Brits, of course, with U.K.-born Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, just one example, with his namesake institute opening its new lab.

Whether that tradition translates into a bustling biomedical city to rival Cambridge, MA, or simply more growth in the triangle that connects London, Cambridge, and Oxford, remains to be seen. Whatever happens, scientific caution blended with traditional British reserve might make for a bit less hype than one might see across the pond, as Babraham’s Derek Jones pointed out during our dinner: “We’re just not very good at celebrating our own success.”

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