London, UK (Scicasts) — As the Eurozone is back to solid GDP growth levels of 0.4% per quarter, most of its countries are officially out of recession. This means good chances to increase expenditure on R&D towards its 3% target for 2020 and additional resources to invest in promising research and businesses. We discuss with Dr. Ian Barwick, COO of the Life Sciences Hub Wales, how this is being achieved.
Life Sciences Hub was launched in Cardiff in July 2014, and since then has generated £174 Million worth of investments from the Wales Life Sciences Investment Fund and private partners, providing an example of how government and private sector can join forces.
“The Welsh Minister for Economy, Science & Transport, Edwina Hart, along with Professor Chris McGuigan, Chair of Life Sciences Hub Wales and life sciences Entrepreneur Professor Chris Evans, drove forward the opening of the Hub”, - says Ian Barwick.
The Hub is now home to eight companies, which have been selected from a total of 500 applications. Three of them, Simbec, Orion and Medaphor, are “homegrown talent”, while the other five such as ReNeuron and Verona Pharma are planning to relocate. Dr. Barwick says: “The response to the Wales Life Sciences Investment Fund has been phenomenal.”
He adds that by bringing together exciting start-ups, established businesses and other key stakeholders, the Hub has already generated 420 jobs and can potentially contribute up to £1 Billion annually to the Welsh economy.
However, to sustain the input of ideas, new companies will need collaboration with their academic partners. “Building an advanced network of support is also crucial for Wales’ life sciences eco-system,” – he notes. The Hub already has established links with Cardiff and Swansea universities and “encourages researchers and students to visit the Hub to network and share ideas with our members”.
“A lot of the time, the issue is simply providing opportunities for academics and researchers to interact in the right environment and this is where the Hub can help by creating the right ‘space’ for these interactions to occur,” – he says.
Such opportunities are free events, frequently hosted at the Hub and featuring external partners as well as local startups. The next Showcase event is announced to take place in a week’s time, on May 20th, with Microsoft, GE Healthcare and Sony as external guests.
But when connecting academia and businesses, who takes the first step?
Dr. Barwick says: “Academic researchers through their Technology Transfer Offices will often look for the appropriate companies to approach to discuss the commercialization of their research. Conversely, many companies now employ technology scouts to keep a watching brief on promising research from academics and develop business relationships with them.”
“It really hinges on the people involved and the trust and understanding that they build up over time, - he adds, - along with an appreciation of the constraints and opportunities that both sides experience.
“Linked to this would be having suitably experienced staff working at this academic-industry interface who can help with the project management and also help deal with issues such as intellectual property, regulation and broader business issues such as marketing and finance.”
Financial support, if the collaboration is established, will be provided partly by the company and partly, by grant funding schemes that would match the financial contribution from industrial partners. The Hub, in this case, would not be involved in supplying financial aid but would “provide signposting to appropriate funding sources.”
Here Dr. Barwick gives a list of them.
Life Sciences Research Network Wales, he says, is part of a £15M initiative to support academics in developing long term capacity within the life sciences sector. It is aimed at developing “new therapeutic treatments in areas of unmet medical and veterinary need.”
Life Sciences Bridging Fund, which was recently announced by the Welsh Government and is managed by the Hub, “will enable some of the most promising life sciences research to become commercially viable businesses”.
And finally, there is the flagship £100M Life Sciences Investment Fund, which has already made investments “in indigenous Welsh businesses, and also in businesses relocating their operations to Wales”.
However, he admits that “with projects at a much earlier stage (pre-proof of concept), funding can be harder to secure”. In this case, the recently opened GE Innovation Village, located within miles from the Hub, along with other incubators such as MediCentre, could provide an initial site for start-up companies to base their operations from.
Concluding our discussion, we asked about Dr. Barwick’s vision of the future of life sciences.
“There are tremendous opportunities in life sciences as we are living longer and therefore suffering with more chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. As our knowledge of diseases improves, there is a hope that we move from curing and controlling diseases to a more proactive approach of preventing many of these diseases occurring in the first place.
“The rise of mobile technology and related health apps mean that we can all collect an extraordinary amount of our personal health data (activity, diet, heart rate, sleep patterns etc.) and this will be increasingly utilized by health professionals.”
He also thinks: “It is imperative to seek innovative and more effective diagnostics and treatments.“
“The major industrialized countries realize that they must continue to fund basic and excellent science to reap the rewards downstream, but follow-on funding is equally important to ensure that promising research can be commercialized and not simply falter.
“Here in Wales, we are making excellent progress to develop a ‘funding continuum’ to ensure that we provide the right funding at the right time.”