Biotechnology: bridging the gap between science and entrepreneurship
Josephine Pepper and Thomas Vanderstichele
Biotechnology is at the forefront of the twenty-first century’s biological revolution, developing novel therapies grounded in the mechanisms already exploited by biology. Biotech companies themselves are the minnows of the pharmaceutical world, streamlined for the sole purpose of developing these treatments—no marketing costs, just pure research and development —and aiming for the ultimate prize of acquisition by big pharma . This system ensures everyone is happy: the biotech equity holders receive a fat premium for their investment, and the pharma management have their next blockbuster drug.
The convergence of outstanding scientific breakthroughs and investor appetite for lucrative returns has led to a worldwide biotech boom, with its epicentre in America. Clusters of biotech start-ups have sprung up around academic institutes across the world, with a tight synergy between the two. The biotech clusters across the pond in San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston far outshine their British counterparts in Oxford, Cambridge, and London—known as the ‘golden triangle’—which are not only smaller, but also have lower growth rates.
Why aren’t Britain’s best researchers investing in biotech and building companies to fill this gap, instead of penning their fiftieth paper?
Why aren’t Britain’s best researchers investing in biotech and building companies to fill this gap, instead of penning their fiftieth paper? The quality of research certainly cannot be blamed: recent university league tables for medicine and biomedical sciences place Oxford and Cambridge in the top three worldwide. Yes, biotech is a risky industry in which rewards are often reaped only after 10 to 15 years, but researchers are in the unique position of having fully funded university labs—and intellectual property of greater maturity —already on hand. The foundations are in place, so why not put them to use?
The foundations are in place, so why not put them to use?
Perhaps the issue is that scientific discoveries have no associated guarantee. The chance of any one venture translating into the next biotechnological ‘unicorn’ (a start-up valued at more than one billion dollars) is slim. Or perhaps it is due to the trend towards “isolated excellence”, as described by Luke Heine, a research intern at Oxford Sciences Innovation and founder of the Harvard Lab of Entrepreneurship and Development. British researchers tend to produce world leading science only within a very niche area, having been encouraged to rapidly specialise, driven into a corner by the competitive scientific ethos. Certainly, the nature of higher education in Britain lends itself to specialisation at a young age, while in America students only find their niche in graduate school. Furthermore, it is well documented that the seed of innovation is planted at the cross-sections of academic disciplines, and Oxford’s departmental structure does not lend itself well to interdisciplinary collaboration.
The new Oxford University Biotech Society (OUBT) aims to address these problems. The newly founded group aims to inspire a new generation of scientific entrepreneurs at a stage sufficiently early in their career to foster a more risk-taking attitude. By attracting top scientific speakers and investors from the cluster in Oxford and further afield, and by bringing together students from a range of academic backgrounds, it hopes to inspire and build relationships that will cultivate a more interdisciplinary approach in the search for the next blockbuster drug.
The society’s first event is on Thursday of 2nd week at 5 o’clock in the New Biochemistry building. Andrew McLean, a principal at Oxford Sciences Innovation, will talk about how to build a world-beating biotech company from a groundbreaking piece of science.