LONDON ¿ The London Biotechnology Network (LBN) says it is on course to halt the exodus of biotechnology companies from London, with the creation of four bioincubators and a science park in the capital.

Currently, a shortage of laboratory space means that when they reach a certain stage of development, companies that start life in London¿s universities and research institutes are forced out of the city. A recent example is Microscience, which spun out of Imperial College but had to move to Wokingham, Berkshire, to find suitable laboratory facilities.

Simon Tarpey, director of LBN, told BioWorld International, ¿Historically companies have moved toward Oxford or Cambridge, but certainly not out of choice. I know some want to come back if we can create the space, and there are also several companies from elsewhere in the UK, and from outside the UK, that would like to be based in London.¿

More pressingly, a new survey published by LBN shows that the problem could undermine London¿s existing biotechnology cluster. There are currently 55 companies in the capital, 85 percent of them with fewer than 30 employees, which likely need larger premises to grow. Under the current growth rates there will be a further 40 new companies in the next two years.

LBN¿s survey shows these companies are concentrated around academic research centers in central and west London. ¿This to a large extent reflects the origins of biotechnology companies spinning out of medical schools and universities of central London,¿ said Tarpey. ¿The spinout companies naturally like to remain geographically close to their academic centers to retain links as they grow.¿

But significantly, the survey also found that having grown to a certain size, most prefer to remain in London, but have extreme difficulty finding laboratory space.

LBN says the attractions of being in London are obvious: spending on biotechnology-related research in London is around #300 million per annum; 60 percent of all clinical trials in Europe are carried out in the UK, with London being the major center; and there are over 50 clinical research organizations covering all specialties.

LBN was set up in June 2000 to provide a coordinated approach to developing the bioscience cluster in London. It is working with the London Development Agency and the government to foster the development of new laboratory facilities. The first of four projects, the London Bioscience Innovation Centre at the Royal Veterinary College, is up and running, and the first phase is leased.

Tarpey said that by developing bioincubators in land and buildings owned by academic institutions or National Health Service hospitals, it is possible to draw in private investors to build the facilities, and market them at similar rents to Oxford or Cambridge. At the same time universities, medical schools and hospitals get extra revenue from the projects, while fostering the commercialization of research they spin out.

¿Investors need to see a demand from tenants who can pay rent,¿ said Tarpey. The survey ¿shows conclusively that there is a huge demand in London.¿

The other three bioincubators are expected to be completed by the end of 2003. The proposed science park is on a longer time line of three to five years.

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