We were pleased to host a roundtable in Parliament this week with Chi Onwurah MP, Labour’s Shadow Science, Research and Innovation Minister, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and former engineer.
Joining Onwurah for a discussion on the health innovation and life sciences landscape in the UK were leading individuals from across industry and academia, who shared interesting insights on the challenges facing innovative life sciences and biotech businesses.
The Government has set out its ambition to make the UK a ‘Science Superpower’, recently launching a new dedicated Science and Technology department; Rishi Sunak, inspired by his days at Stanford University, has been open about his dream to turn the country into the next Silicon Valley.
In 2021, the Government launched a ten-year Life Sciences Vision to accelerate the delivery of innovation to patients. But in recent years the number of clinical trials participants in the UK has plummeted, and the UK’s global ranking for late-stage (phase III) trials has nosedived from 4th to 10th behind Spain, France and Italy. The recent O’Shaughnessy Review looked into this but the long and short of it is: in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, the UK is falling behind and other countries like Australia are stealing a march on us.
So, what are some of the biggest challenges facing pioneering life sciences and biotech businesses and preventing them from bringing new treatments to patients, and where does Labour stand?
Associate Partner at Pagefield Juliet Patterson reviews the key takeaways below…
Strong and stable policy
Onwurah made clear that while Britain has a long and proud heritage in life sciences, and despite the fantastic research being undertaken at universities right across the country and our world-leading science base, the sector’s potential is simply not being maximised.
She stressed the need for a proper long-term plan to provide real stability for life sciences and biotech businesses, which would in turn encourage new research and investors.
Pointing to Ministerial turnover, including a couple of months when there was no dedicated Science Minister with responsibility for the R&D brief, she made clear that businesses need better certainty from government.
Labour’s ambition is to provide that strategic, long-term certainty by investing 3% of GDP in a mix of both public and private investment in R&D to drive growth.
But Onwurah set out that ONS changes to how the current level of private R&D is measured has led to a lack of clarity on the government’s target of 2.4% of GDP invested in R&D, adding to that environment of uncertainty and impeding companies’ abilities to plan ahead.
Encouraging private sector investment
Access to capital was raised as a major problem for innovative businesses in the UK. Affecting both start-ups (including university spinouts) and scale-ups, some UK businesses simply do not have access to the kinds of patient capital and private investment necessary to succeed. The UK currently has the lowest level of business investment in the G7.
Having recently visited US universities Berkeley and Stanford where she met with venture capitalists and researchers, Onwurah saw first-hand the model that has worked in the US, where entrepreneurship is encouraged early, and the scientific world has been integrated with the commercial for decades.
It was agreed there is no silver bullet, but that fostering the kind of private investment ecosystem needed to drive growth and innovation could require a plethora of changes, such as: better incentives for venture capitalists to invest in UK businesses; reducing bureaucracy for drug approvals and trials in the UK; encouraging UKRI to fund high-risk research; and flipping the narrative to better champion UK start-up success stories. Discussion on the recently published USIT guide was held, with a general view that the guidelines are helpful.
Lord John O’Neill recently carried out a review of UK start-ups and scale-ups for Labour, setting out recommendations to help make Britain the best place to start and grow a business. These reconmendations will help inform Labour’s policymaking ahead of the general election.
Accelerating clinical trials
We heard that the recent decision by the Australian government to introduce a significant tax rebate for companies trialling drugs there could damage UK competitiveness in the clinical trials space – particularly smaller companies looking to run clinical trials.
Likewise, the introduction in 2019 of the voluntary scheme for branded medicines pricing and access (VPAS) has seen companies choosing to launch their medicines outside of the UK.
It is estimated that in 2020/21 the NHS lost £447 million in revenue due to a drop off in commercial clinical trial activity.
So how do make the UK an attractive place to run clinical trials and bring medicines to market?
It was suggested that there needs be less bureaucracy and better resources for the regulator – with more harmonisations for drug approvals via the MHRA and ethics committees. The current process for approving trials, as well as the status quo in terms of how trials have typically been delivered, is burdensome, time-consuming and costly.
Onwurah also referred to Keir Starmer’s mission to build an NHS fit for the future, which will enable the NHS to do its day job and give it the bandwidth to focus on innovation.
As part of this plan, Labour proposes policies including a plan for procurement, adoption and spread of new technologies, so innovators have a clearer route to get their product into the NHS; and reduction of unnecessary bureaucracy so NHS Trust Drugs and Therapeutic Committees do not unnecessarily re-evaluate products that have already been shown to be clinically and cost effective by NICE.
Other proposals include working with the CQC to ensure regulation involves speedy adoption of new technology, better horizon scanning for emerging treatments, and training the NHS workforce to do clinical trials.
Places and People
Finally, it was clear that ‘place’ should not be ignored by policymakers when considering how to best foster health innovation. There is a need for more biotech clusters across the UK – with some amazing examples like the Cambridge Science Park providing the model for success – to help create collaborative ecosystems that foster commercial and scientific activity.
But there is a need for integrated transport links to better connect people with jobs and ensure critical mass. Transport and access is also key for patient recruitment for the successful delivery of clinical trials.
Meanwhile laboratory space is also proving to be a globally competitive issue with companies sometimes opting to base their operations in places like Boston over UK cities.
The ambition for the sector amongst stakeholders was clear to see – and a theme that ran through our discussion was that the UK truly has all the ingredients to be a global leader in life sciences and biotech.
The Labour Party has made clear it is keen to make life-saving research easier to conduct, to drive growth by investing in R&D and to support pioneering companies to both start-up and scale-up. This would, in turn, lead to broad and equitable health benefits across the country.
We look forward to continuing to see the development of their policies ahead of the general election, and continuing the discussion.