On Tuesday 24 November, the Industry and Parliament Trust, in partnership with Aston University and Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK hosted a discussion entitled ‘Life Sciences: A Golden Age of Innovation’. Due to COVID-19 the event was held virtually and was chaired by Daniel Zeichner MP, Chair of All-Party Group on Life Sciences. Providing their expert knowledge were Dr Samin Saeed, Chief Scientific Officer and Medical Director, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK and Professor Anna Hine, Associate Dean of Enterprise, Aston University College of Health and Life Sciences.
1. How do we keep the UK sector competitive with global clusters such as those in California and Massachusetts?
2. How do we achieve the 2.4 research and development target specified in the sector deal?
3. What partnerships are needed between industry, the government and the NHS to improve the development and adoption of innovation.
This blog primarily addresses the first two challenges.
1. Keeping the UK competitive with the best in Life Science
Based on her own experience in Massachusetts while a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, Prof Hine highlighted two major differences that she has observed between the UK and the USA:
• speed of decision-making and implementation
• appetite and/or capacity to accept risk
Putting these together, it is easy to see why the UK doesn’t always fulfil our potential. Each nation’s position results from its attitude to caution versus its willingness to accept failure. To keep ahead, a good idea must be enacted quickly. In UK universities, it normally takes a minimum of a year from idea to commencing laboratory research for the majority of investigators’ new projects (if indeed the project is funded at all ~80% are not). In the US, this can be reduced to as little as days, without further scrutiny, through large, flexible programme grants. Likewise, in the US, venture capitalists typically expect 90% failure but still make massive profits. Thus, the UK is particularly good at delivering value for money, but our detailed scrutiny costs us in terms of time spent on proposing, auditing and due diligence versus time spent in active productivity. Detailing examples from both countries, Hine suggested that rather than positioning at either extreme, the balance (and its consequences) should be a topic of renewed consideration. A thoughtful discussion ensued.
2. Achieving the 2.4% Research and Development Target
From a university perspective, there are four areas where additional research funds would achieve major impact:
The translation gap
Current levels of technology development are funded in the UK as follows:
1. Basic research UKRI responsive mode & targeted calls and Innovate UK KTPs
2. Proof of concept Follow-on-fund, Impact Accelerator Accounts
3. Higher stage of technology readiness virtually nothing
4. Adoption by industry (licensing) or VC/Innovate UK funind of spin-outs
5. Successful licensed product or sale of spin-out
There are precious few funds to get from university proof-of principle to a level of technology readiness that is sufficently developed for adoption by industry.
Targeted versus open funding calls: Who really knows what will be needed?
Innovate UK rightly sponsors business-led innovation, but in late November 2022, only 1 of its 22 calls was open to universities and only then if led by a business partner. Meanwhile, UKRI funding councils are primarily geared to fund hypothesis-based research. Very little funding is available to create new inventions. What about the industrially-relevant things that haven’t yet been imagined or that no one (except perhaps a few researchers) know is even feasible? The UK urgently needs an equivalent to the EU Horizon2020 FET-OPEN competition, which sponsors, with no pre-conceptions of targets, projects to create commercially related inventions that are designed to become our future disruptive technologies.
Licensing as well as spin-outs
Existing UK translational funding is highly geared towards spin-outs and yet licensing is more sustainable for universities and has enormously-high yields for both partners, e.g. the Aston Blockbuster drug Temazolomide https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/temozolomide-birth-of-a-blockbuster/3004811.article (>$1bn sales p/a). Incidentally, this drug didn’t result from detailed scrutiny of a research proposal. The student’s instruction was “make some interesting molecules” – very much in the US style.
Targeting particular universities
The best public impacts do not necessarily come from the Russell Group or from academics who publish the “best” research papers, though the quality of institutions has historically been judged in that way. Interestingly though, Impact Accelerator Accounts in the Biosciences & Biotechnology sector are currently restricted only to selected Russell Group Universities.
3. Transfer of innovation into the NHS
Dr Saeed spoke eloquently in answer to many questions on industry/NHS interaction. With regard to the Oxford vaccine, the overall consensus was “Look what we can do as a nation when we really want to” – in terms of speed, risk, resources and will.
Words by Professor Anna V Hine, Associate Dean of Enterprise at Aston University College of Health and Life Sciences