LONDON - Walk into any pub in London, ask about biotechnology and you'll get varying answers.
One woman said she was "a bit unsure" about the science, scrunching her nose. She also expressed distrust for the government.
"They say one thing and do another," she said, referring to the government's claim to clearly label foodstuffs that contain genetically modified organisms.
But there's another side.
"It helped my mum," said another woman. "What's the name of that drug?"
Genentech Inc.'s Herceptin, it turns out. Her mother is a breast cancer survivor who participated in a Herceptin (trastuzumab) Phase III trial in Ireland. The drug is approved for HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer.
Those answers generally reflect biotechnology's progress in the UK and in London, specifically. Medicinally, it's established. In other applications, such as in agriculture, it lags in acceptance.
However, regarding the entirety of Europe, London stands out as a biotechnology stronghold. The first European C21 BioVentures conference was held in London in 2000. The next two were held in Munich, Germany, over the following three years. The event returned to London this year to its largest gathering ever - more than 350 attendees, including representatives from nearly 200 companies. While the conferences in Munich were successes, the return to London was welcome, said Robert Kilpatrick, partner at Technology Vision Group LLC, the conference organizer.
He told BioWorld Financial Watch the city is a great host because it's a worldwide financial hub and attendees can "do other business while they are here." But the main reason for bringing the conference back to London was because "the UK has the most vibrant biotech in Europe."
London Plans More Bioscience Support
The potential financial benefits of a strong biotech sector have not gone unnoticed by the UK. The London Development Agency (LDA), a specific governmental regional development agency for London, is responsible for creating London's business plan. It has earmarked the biosciences as a focal point and its four-year London Life Sciences Strategy and Action Plan was set in motion in July.
Damian Lynch, the life science manager at LDA, said the need for the plan was glaring. He pointed to the BIO-type groups that litter the U.S. - the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Biotechnology Association of Alabama, BioFlorida, for example - and said, "London didn't have that."
The LDA doesn't focus exclusively on biotechnology. In fact, it has an annual budget of £300 million (US$554.7 million), but just £5 million to £6 million of that is slated for biotechnology investment. However, Lynch pointed out, the agency invests only in areas in which it knows it also will see private investment.
London boasts 82 life science companies, according to LDA research. And many of those are early stage, meaning they have "less than five staff, are at a pre-revenue stage or were formed less than two years ago." But those companies represent "a large economic potential, if the condition for their growth can be created in London," the agency's executive summary reads, so the agency has set about addressing London's four major hindrances.
Perhaps most pressing is space - there is an infrastructure shortage in London.
"London's congested," Lynch said. "We do office space real well, but we don't do lab space so well."
To defeat that issue, the LDA partners with those looking to build high-tech facilities and then tosses in needed funding. As an example, Lynch pointed to a project under way with Queen Mary University of London. The school provided about 40,000 square feet of wet lab space and the agency is contributing £4 million to build incubator and grow-on facilities. The total project is estimated to cost £18 million, and the university is responsible for raising the rest.
Secondly, the LDA is aiming to help companies tap into experienced management - young companies often are trapped by the management Catch-22, Lynch said.
"You can't get good management without funding and you can't get funding without good management," he told BioWorld Financial Watch. The LDA expects to handle that problem by paying for business mentors at early stage companies, beginning this year.
The agency also will spend time promoting London's life sciences, letting others know what the technology and London have to offer. The plan is to raise the visibility of London's collective bioscience cluster.
The final hurdle facing the LDA is financial. Even though "every bank worth its salt is [in London]," as Techvision's Kilpatrick said, and the city is a global financial center, young companies have needs that are not being met.
"We recognize there is a funding gap," Lynch said. "There's a gap in early stage funding and proof-of-concept funding."
The LDA is negotiating a £30 million seed fund. While it is dedicated to life science companies in general, biotech companies are eligible. It also is negotiating a fund for the proof-of-concept stage, although the estimated size of that fund is not yet known.
"We're working really quite hard to address that [funding] gap," he said.
Besides the LDA's work, London has more to offer. It has the London Stock Exchange and its Alternate Investment Market, which is better designed for technology firms. Lynch said those factors, along with the city's high level of corporate money, make London "a natural pull" for biotech companies and investors.
Biotech Faces A Trust Issue In London
The March 30, 2004, issue of The Independent blared the headline "Prozac Nation, UK." The article said that more than 6 million people in Britain are now taking pills such as Prozac to help their mood. It also said that 80 percent of the 250 general practitioners surveyed admitted they were over-prescribing antidepressants as a "quick fix" to anxiety problems.
The UK is not a country scared of taking, or prescribing, medicine. But why the biotechnology dichotomy - medicine vs. agriculture?
Agricultural biotechnology in general "gets diluted" in London because of the city's medical prowess, Lynch said. He is Australian by birth and said that when he came to the UK, he was "staggered" by the lack of agricultural biotechnology in the country. He also pointed out that the U.S. and Australia have tremendous swathes of land for field trials. Not so in the UK.
Also, the issue of genetically modified organisms involves food and the government, and some in the UK are eyeing the government warily these days. Just across the street from Big Ben and the British Parliament and close to the BioVentures conference, a collection of signs and banners holds Prime Minister Tony Blair's feet to the fire for his involvement in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Blair, along with President George Bush, also has been accused of hyping the need to go to war.
Lynch acknowledged the trust factor, but said the message is that central government is "very responsive to public opinion."
"Public opinion around new products is always going to be one of [skepticism or suspicion]," he said. "It's never going to disappear, but it's one we should always listen to."
The LDA might consider taking its message into London's pubs.