UK government needs stronger focussed support for life sciences and medtech sectors

7 December 2011

After a week with a stream of messages from the government outlining support for business investment and technology companies, especially in the life sciences and healthcare, it seems there is still a lack of clear policy for support.

New schemes were mixed with old to make the announcements look bigger and you need a PhD in government hype to work out the details of what was really going on.

Budget announcements were followed by a release from the Department of Health, closely followed by the Department for Business, Industry and Skills, mixed in with more announcements from the Department of Health, and the Prime Minister talking about all issues at once. Important messages seem to have been drowned in the deluge, and the media just picked on any negative issue they could find — the BBC and other media sidetracked the issue to one of patient confidentiality for several days.

At least the government recognises the "valley of death" syndrome were companies have had funding to develop a product, but no one wants to invest in the final stage of the journey from invention to market. However, one high-tech company with a world-beating product ready for production was told this week by one minister's office that the minister would rather wait until the company was further down the production line before he would consider visiting it!

Does the Department of Health recognise what medical technology is? Its media centre has just under 30 staff, with teams for different ministers and their responsibilities, plus other teams, with a long list of healthcare-related areas covered by each. However, nowhere does it mention medical technology (but if you ask it is subjugated to Informatics). [1]

A report by BioCity Nottingham points out that lack of investment is driving UK technology companies to move to China and elsewhere to find investment — including physically moving. Another problem with UK funding is that most of it is concentrated in the southeast of England. [2]

The FT says that private investors were among the few winners in George Osborne's Autumn Statement, with increased levels of tax relief to back start-up businesses. This is welcome as the UK has a rich vein of life sciences and medical technology start ups in need of investment. Investment in research has time and again shown to produce large returns to the economy from money invested — 6 to 1 for the US space programme and 100 to 1 for research on the genome.

 Dr Glenn Crocker, Chief Executive of BioCity Nottingham, a leading incubator company hosting over 70 early stage and growing businesses operating in the life science sector, while welcoming the government measures, has a number of caveats to add. He said: “The £180 million catalyst fund needs to be directed to early clinical trials, which can be very costly for emerging life science businesses and it is at this stage that promising companies often grind to a halt for lack of investment. The government might look at the USA’s Therapeutic Discovery Project, which funds 50% of the costs of therapeutic product development.

"I would suggest that the greatest benefit for the investment of this resource will be in small companies outside the South East of England where research is relatively underfunded. Clearly the small print of the catalyst fund has yet to be worked out and I would encourage the government to consult with those in early-stage life science companies as it develops its policies.”

Dr Crocker was very disappointed at the focus of the debate around links between the NHS and drug discovery activity: “Surely it could have been made much clearer that the debate is not about data protection and privatisation of the NHS but is about the removal of red tape around activities that are already currently being undertaken today for the benefit of all. The marshalling of vast NHS resources to accelerate drug discovery and make the UK an attractive location to undertake pharmaceutical research and development is enormously important, but the agenda has been allowed to wander into areas which really aren’t central to the issue.”

Further information

1. See the DH Media Centre page:

2. Crocker G. Transition UK Life Science Start-up report 2011. BioCity Nottingham & Mobius Life Science Fund.

3. Crocker G. Opportunity. UK Life Science start-up report 2010. BioCity Nottingham & Mobius Life Science Fund.


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