East Midlands pharma sector regenerating following AstraZeneca research lab closure

 The pharmaceutical industry in the UK's East Midlands is seeing growth in new businesses following AstraZeneca’s closure of its Charnwood research labs, according to industry association Medilink East Midlands.

In March 2010, the pharmaceutical giant announced the closure of its research and development centre in Charnwood, Loughborough with the loss of around 1200 jobs, as part of a company wide cost-cutting programme.

This rationalisation of research and development and re-configuration of business models, including a radical change of approach to drug discovery and development was not specific to AstraZeneca, and pharmaceutical companies globally followed suit.

The closure in Charnwood came as a massive blow to the region’s economy with a knock-on effect on local communities and suppliers. It also impacted the UK’s pharmaceutical research and development industry on a national scale, shrinking the industry by 3%.

Following the closure, East Midlands start-ups were able to tap into the Healthcare and Bioscience iNet resource enabling them to benefit from practical business support and help them establish themselves in the region’s life science network. Some companies such as Nottingham based XenoGesis, also gained access to grant funding.

Medilink works closely with businesses supporting their development and growth, and has reported the emergence of numerous successful start-up businesses as a direct result of the AstraZeneca closure, which have flourished and prospered over the last two to three years.

Through the delivery of the Healthcare and Bioscience iNet, Medilink has worked with numerous individuals that started their own businesses following redundancy from AZ, providing impartial information and advice, as well as grant funding and signposting to commercial opportunities.

Darren Clark, Chief Executive of Medilink East Midlands commented: “The AZ closure meant many highly skilled individuals were forced to reconsider their career paths. Around half of the employees found new jobs or were relocated to other AZ sites, while others went into education and further training. The Medilink team was involved in the fall-out of the closure, and through the iNet provided workshops for ex-employees, as well as providing advice on funding, and support through networking.

We continue to champion the entrepreneurial spirit of the small percentage of individuals who combined their specialist knowledge and expertise gleaned while at AZ, with keen business acumen to start-up their own businesses, this has ultimately helped to continue the expansion of our region’s life sciences industry.”

Nottingham’s Dr Richard Weaver, Founder and Managing Director of XenoGesis, had been employed at Astra Zeneca for 14 years as an Associate Principal Scientist and Group Leader. When the company closed its Charnwood base, Richard identified a trend in the pharmaceutical industry towards outsourcing, by capitalising on this gap in the market XenoGesis was born.

XenoGesis is a contract research organisation based in BioCity, that takes a consultative approach to drug discovery projects, they specialise in preclinical drug metabolism, pharmacokinetics, quantitative bio-analysis and expert interpretation. The team performs in-vitro laboratory tests for clients, to enable them to see the strengths and weaknesses in their research compounds, essentially analysing in detail what the body does to the drugs.

Dr Weaver said, “When we set up the business, the first thing we did was write a five year business plan, and we have now exceeded all of our original commercial goals. We started with three full time employees and have now doubled to six, a growth of 100% in 16 months. We were delighted to win the Medilink Start-up Business Award in 2012; the recognition of our achievements was a massive boost to our morale. We are committed to becoming the contract research organisation of choice, and to creating further job opportunities in the East Midlands.”

Based in Quorn, Leicestershire, Joanne Broadhead, was Team Manager for Liquid Manufacturing at AstraZeneca having started her career there in 1996. Following her redundancy, a work contract she had secured fell through at the 11th hour, so she took the option of starting her own consultancy business.

Joanne Broadhead Consulting now provides technical and project management expertise to pharmaceutical development projects, specialising in all aspects of sterile product development and manufacture. Joanne works for a variety of clients, both locally in the East Midlands and further afield.

She also works with De Montfort University on their Quality by Design post-graduate programme. Joanne is keen to expand her client base and future ventures include developing and running a training course in sterile product development in the East Midlands.

Ms Broadhead commented: "Medilink have been an invaluable resource over the past 2 years. They have provided information on various funding opportunities as well as one to one advice tailored to my own specific situation. I have also attended several excellent training course which, in addition to the content, have also provided a great opportunity to network with other East Midlands individuals and small companies in the bioscience sector."

For Nottingham-based Jenny Walsh, redundancy from AZ acted as a springboard for pursuing a career in something she felt passionately about. Having worked for AZ for over four years as a Pharmaceutical Development Team Manager, and team lead for paediatric product development, she identified a huge unmet need in the development of medicines for children, and as a result, now provides consultancy services with a focus on paediatric product development.

She commented, “The development of paediatric products is generally much more complex than developing adult products, what’s more, paediatric development is now mandatory for all new patent-protected drugs and incentives are in place to develop off-patent drugs. With this in mind, I decided to set up my consultancy Jenny Walsh Consulting to allow me to work in an area that I really enjoy. I’m also aware that many SMEs don’t have their own expertise in paediatric development, so am looking to expand my client base and would also like to build further links with academia.

My time at AZ enabled me to gain a thorough understanding of regulations in this area and having worked closely with other functions in AZ including regulatory, clinical and safety assessment, I am now able to offer my expertise to help in the advancement of medicines for children.”

Loughborough based Tony Mete, recently opened doors of his business Medsyndesign. Following 17 years in AZ in Medicinal Chemistry, as a PhD Chemist Tony worked extensively in respiratory and inflammation research. Having recently moved into Loughborough University Innovation Centre, Tony now works closely with clients to develop new and improved medicines for poorly treated diseases, by designing new chemicals for them to test.

Tony’s expertise is primarily in the fields of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and antibiotics, by running his own business he is able to fund his own research in developing new medicines, and is keen to both grow the business and work on collaborative research with University groups.

Aurelia Bioscience, based at BioCity Nottingham, is founded on the combined 70 years pharmaceutical expertise of the three directors, all ex AZ employees. Now, just over one year old, Aurelia Bioscience is a growing contract research organisation (CRO) that specialises in biochemical and cell-based biological test development, chemical compound screening to identify drug candidates and associated reagent/equipment consultancy for clients in the life sciences sector.

Upon the closure of the Charnwood site, the founders were looking for further challenges in their careers, which allowed them to continue to utilise their scientific skills and continue to contribute to biomedical research. With successful academic careers, which include doctorates in reproductive endocrinology and the genetics of rare diseases, and a master’s degree in neuropharmacology, these science skills were complemented by additional skills in project management, governance, finance, commercial awareness and entrepreneurship, resulting in a highly skilled management team for Aurelia Bioscience.

When AZ closed there were several options available, e.g. move to another AstraZeneca site, move to another pharmaceutical or biotechnology company or strike out on their own and begin a new independent scientific company. The founding directors decided the market conditions were right to start afresh, and due to the huge amount of change taking place in the world of drug discovery felt they had the skills and drive to succeed in this 'brave new world'.

Their additional challenge was to not only to be able to set up and run a scientific facility, but also to identify partners who wished to contract their services and then deliver their project requirements, all in a commercially viable way.

Kevin Hart said, "As soon as one business milestone is fulfilled, another emerges. Examples include accomplishing our investment requirements, moving into our first facilities, declaring our laboratory operational, winning our first contract, completing our first contract, getting paid for our services for the first time and securing our first repeat business. Probably the most satisfying milestone is when a particular piece of work is completed for a client and it advances their drug discovery programme in some way. We take great pride in this as this is one of our most basic motivations for what we do.”


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