Explore the ScaleUp Annual Review 2020

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Insight: Hubs - the life science of scaling up

The life sciences sector has been in the spotlight throughout 2020. In a year of major disruption to the global economy, it has been at the forefront of innovations to solve the pandemic,  growth and investment.  As exemplars of hubs helping life sciences scaleups deliver growth and innovation, we asked Derek Jones, CEO of Babraham Research Campus; Dr Kath Mackay, Managing Director, Bruntwood SciTech – Alderley Park; and Ned Wakeman, Director of the Alderley Park Accelerator, to reflect on a momentous year.

Keeping world class facilities open

For many R&D-focused enterprises, lockdown presented immediate problems of access to facilities. Both Babraham Research Campus and Alderley Park remained open throughout the year.

“A lot of people thought that the pandemic would lead to tumbleweed blowing through the campus,” says Derek Jones. “On the contrary; like the Windmill Theatre during the Blitz, we were determined to remain open. Our tenant companies continued to raise money and continued to grow. The companies had the right to access their buildings and we had an obligation to keep the campus safe, secure and open, and that would try to facilitate their growth as much as we can.”

“Alderley Park is home to more than 200 science and innovation based companies,” says Kath Mackay. “At Alderley Park, and across the whole Bruntwood SciTech network, it was really important for us to ensure that our facilities, including our open access laboratories and shared science services, remained open to allow our customers to continue with vital research and development. At Alderley Park particularly, it was imperative to act quickly to ensure our spaces were Covid-secure.”

Maintaining support and collaboration

The Babraham Research Campus is home to 60 companies, from nascent startups to successful scaleups. “It’s a micro-cluster and there is a lot of dynamic interaction,” says Derek Jones, “where companies are willing to help and mentor each other.”

Talking directly to as many of its companies as possible, Alderley Park rapidly set up online workshops and established an online tool for COVID-19 support. Ned Wakeman also started a weekly peer-to-peer, unstructured ‘directors’ call’. “People just wanted to talk to their peers,” he says. Initially discussions focused on issues such as cash preservation and implementing the furlough scheme – but it didn’t take long before people wanted to talk about their growth problems, such as business development and commission structures.

As a result of the peer-to-peer directors’ calls, Alderley Park is focusing more attention on how its companies can meet their physical neighbours in the virtual world. A monthly Zoom ‘speed dating’ session is being instituted. A new “Companies and Capabilities” online webpage will increase visibility of companies to each other – and internationally.

Whilst at Brabraham, picking up on themes from the 2020 ScaleUp Survey,  they  are looking at how they  can make further connections between the scientific expertise (and valuable equipment) of the academic community on the campus with the pioneering companies.

Developing new programmes

The Alderley Park Accelerator has evolved its structured scaleup programme, says Wakeman. “We have combined the tools and approaches that we use for early stage companies to de-risking new innovations with the scaleup approach in developing skills, leadership development, access to finance and markets along with providing peer-to-peer support and flexible infrastructure support. This has been really powerful.”

Helping to raise funds

According to this year’s economic impact report, fundraising for companies based on Babraham Research Campus was accelerated by an average of 5.1 months, and 47% of funds raised in the Cambridge region were to ventures located there. So it is a fertile venue for fundraising and companies have continued to raise money through this year, says Derek Jones. (A total of £1.9bn has been raised to date in 2020 by the UK biotech industry as a whole, according to the UK BioIndustry Association.) But, he adds, Covid has had an effect on the pace of fundraising. More money has been raised, but I suspect it has taken a little longer than planned.”

Expanding their physical infrastructure

“Scaleup is tough but everyone thinks it is all about raising the funds but it isn’t,” says Derek Jones. “It’s just as much about the space and the people.” And not only do life sciences scaleups need laboratories – they have needed to spread out more to accommodate for social distancing. 

Both facilities will continue to expand. As part of Bruntwood SciTech’s £247m investment into Alderley Park, the re-developed 150,000 sq ft Glasshouse, which now hosts 27 companies employing 300 people and encourages the convergence of life sciences and technology, was opened in February. 

“We have the land and the space so we could be 40 per cent bigger,” says Derek Jones. On the campus, a further 100,000 sq. ft. of mixed laboratory and office space called BioMed@Babraham, developed by US special real estate company BioMed Realty and operated in collaboration with Babraham Research Campus, has been leased within 12 months – well ahead of schedule. 

The experience of Alderley and Brabraham reinforces our learning observations on clusters and hubs (summarised below), which we are pleased to see others emulating – such as Imperial College ScaleSpace, with whom the ScaleUp Institute has worked closely, and should bode well also for facilities such as Innovation Birmingham backed by Bruntwood who also are collaborators with Alderley Park.