CIMR Debate in Public Policy: Talking the talk and walking the walk…is the Government doing enough in life sciences?

Emma Palmer Foster

Perhaps we should make the UK cabinet members of CIMR to give them a grass roots-level idea of the issues that matter to those on the front line of innovation. Innovation is a driver of economic growth and with the UK life sciences sector creating high value jobs, it’s an industry for which a strong infrastructure should be in place.

A case in point that policy-makers could learn from is the CIMR Debate in Public Policy held on January 18th 2023 on ‘The effectiveness of government initiatives to stimulate the Life Science sector.’

The panel for the debate
Dr Thane Campbell, Deep Science Ventures
Jo Pisani, MedCity London
Dr Renos Savva, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Nick Johnson, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer at Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult
Chair: Paul Edwards MBE, IsomAb Ltd

With a strong focus on doctoral training in the UK and challenges to how universities deal with intellectual property generated by their students, the panel (see below) concluded that….

Training matters

A well trained and skilled workforce is essential for the success of life sciences in the UK – in academia and industry, R&D and corporate activity, as employees and entrepreneurs. Renos, Thane and Nick discussed its importance.

The focus of the London Interdisciplinary Biosciences Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (LIDo DTP), funded by one of the research councils, is to get ‘industry-ready’ graduates into the life sciences sector. What are the signs of success here? Birkbeck academic Dr Renos Savva, who’s involved in the programme, cites figures showing that 43% of graduates stay in academia and 47% enter industry, with 10% in other roles. The students are ‘highly skilled, aware of industry’. The programme could be improved though with extra funds for PhD graduates to…..

With a focus on entrepreneurship, the Venture Science Doctorate programme recently launched by the venture capital fund Deep Science Ventures is developing PhD graduates with jobs ‘baked in’. With the fund focusing on big societal issues such as energy transformation and working at the interface of different technologies, they expect their PhD students to become ‘dedicated to the vision’ that they have started to pursue. They can be funded to continue that work, driving innovation and job creation in the UK.

With the establishment of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult over a decade ago, the UK Government made clear its ambitions to build a world class advanced therapy industry. Chief Strategy and Impact Officer Dr Nick Johnson discussed how crucial skilled and innovative staff have been to the organisation’s success so far and will be in the future. The role of the Catapult, which now works on gene therapy as well, is to address market failures and technological gaps in the development of advanced therapies.

When it was first established it wasn’t clear whether a viable industry could be developed around these complex medicines. As progress was made and the product pipeline expanded, the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult worked with Innovate UK and others to build ‘capabilities, tools and training’ for the success of the industry, retaining and attracting activity in the UK. That doesn’t mean that the demand for skills and infrastructure is over though – with the FDA predicting that 20-30 new advanced therapies will be approved per year in a decade’s time, new skills and technologies will be needed to keep the UK competitive. From advanced process automation to new healthcare economics for these expensive but curative therapies, training and skills development will continue to be important.

Jo Pisani highlighted the value of the life sciences sector to the UK and some of the exciting Government initiatives in this area…. and her disappointment that the words are not always backed up by action.

The UK life sciences sector employs 584,000 people (including indirect labour) and creates ‘economically beneficial’ jobs with Gross Value Added of around £96,000. More is invested in life sciences R&D in the UK (£3.9bn) than in any other sector. The significant contribution of the sector to the pandemic was followed in 2021 by Government papers and task forces in clinical research, innovation and innovation strategy.  However, when it’s not clear that new money is being invested and moves such as the proposal to cut R&D tax credits are mooted, it’s no surprise that the industry is disappointed and jaundiced with this inconsistent messaging. (It now looks as though the proposal on R&D tax credits has been reversed – it would have had a negative financial impact of about £3bn on the UK life sciences industry.)

Thane Campbell discussed how the differences between the students that are being recruited for Deep Sciences’ Venture Science Doctorate and those for more traditional PhDs might change the start-up culture. Describing PhD recruitment as looking for people with ‘academic career ambitions…. High individualistic achievers’ whereas his organisation is looking for ‘entrepreneurial career ambitions… collective achievers’.

These comments led on to a discussion of how UK universities deal with rights to intellectual property (IP) generated by their students, how to incentivise students for venture creation and the role of technology transfer offices. It was posited that adoption of the IP rules that exist in Sweden, whereby ‘Professor’s Privilege’ means that academic scientists retain the rights rather than the institution, and taking technology transfer out of the loop, could stimulate ‘real entrepreneurship’. Jo Pisani was also of the view that some useful changes to the IP regime in UK universities and research institutes could be made – getting scientists more engaged and motivated around entrepreneurship, more like the US. In her role at the Dementia Research Institute, she is seeing some different mechanisms being put in place.

Thane Campbell highlighted how if we want to increase from 0.5% the number of PhDs spinning out companies, there needs to be an increased drive for commercial impact, a view he developed during his own doctoral training. If we don’t let students own their IP, ‘Why would they invent it? … Why would they invent it for you to take it and do something else with it?’. (And many students get into debt to do a PhD.)

The Venture Science Doctorate is letting students own their IP, and with its aim to train a thousand PhDs a year there’s the chance of an increased drive towards entrepreneurship.

While a defence of universities’ willingness to help with innovation and commercialisation was given, the point was made that factors such as full economic costing on research grants are part of the extensive pressure put on academics to cover their costs. All this when they are the ones inventing and innovating! One guest was of the view that ‘a space that isn’t a university’ is needed to invent and innovate unencumbered.

To conclude, the panel discussed their main wish for improving competitiveness in the UK life sciences sector. For Nick Johnson of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, it’s long-term commitment so that organisations like his can plan for the future and continue to innovate with confidence. Renos Savva was also asking for commitment – for the Government’s positive statements around life sciences as the future of the UK economy to be backed up by real money and incentives related to tax, IP and revenue. For Thane Campbell of Deep Science Ventures it was for the UK to continue to operate at the level that allowed the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to be developed. We need to be ‘ambitious across the whole ecosystem’. For Jo Pisani the request is for a more finessed discussion around levelling up and the realisation that it doesn’t have to mean that areas that excel are deprived of funding. ‘If we invest in London, it will bring the rest of the country up.’

The recording of the workshop is available here: