Steve Bates OBE

Expert commentary by Steve Bates OBE, CEO, UK BioIndustry Association

To build successful life science companies you need three things: great science; great people; and the money to back them to success. The UK is not short of any of these components, but they aren’t pulling together in equal measure for our sector. As a result, we have a scaleup challenge and pension savers, in particular, are at risk of missing out on a key growth sector of the economy.

Great science is on our doorstep. We are second only to the US for Nobel Prizes and top universities. The UK is the third global life sciences cluster behind Boston and San Francisco, and we raised a quarter of all European biotech venture capital in 2019. Over two-thirds of European biotech start-ups since 2012 were founded in the UK.

UK biotechs are developing technologies that solve critical global challenges: companies like Oxford Nanopore, which developed the handheld DNA sequencing device used throughout China to diagnose and track the coronavirus; BenevolentAI, which is applying artificial intelligence to speed up and lower the cost of developing new medicines; and Juvenescence, which is searching for the secret to healthy ageing.
Great people are also on our doorstep, and we’re also able to attract great people from around the world to work in our labs and our companies. The global size of our ecosystem means it is less of a risk to take a role in a fast-growing company because highly trained people know they can move to other companies within the cluster without disrupting partners’ careers or their children’s education. The entrepreneurial flair in the current generation of scientists is fantastic, plus we see an exciting circulation of talent and ideas blurring the boundaries between tech and life sciences.

Finally, capital is on our doorstep in the City but is it seizing the opportunity? Historically, few have participated in the prevailing life sciences boom, but during the pandemic, we’ve welcomed support from the investor community, with many investing in the sector for the first time. This could be transformative for patients and the economy, and for shareholders, when combined with the global money we already attract – large pharma, US and Chinese venture capitalists are acutely aware of the opportunities. UK institutional and private investors cannot continue to miss out on this rich stream, offshoring this wealth creation opportunity to the US and increasingly Hong Kong and China. By investing in expertise, a virtuous revolving door can be created where UK institutional and retail investors insightfully support growth opportunities over the medium to longer term, see the returns, and keep coming back for more.