In the first of a series of PropCast episodes dedicated to the life sciences, Kaleigh Haeg from Source Bioscience and Science Kode, and Syncona’s Alex Hamilton discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the UK’s burgeoning life sciences sector in an episode recorded at the end of 2021.
Alex Hamilton is a partner at Syncona Investment Management, a FTSE 250 venture capital firm that invests in early-stage life sciences firms, and Kaleigh Haeg is head of strategy at Source Bioscience, a lab services provider, as well as the founder of Science Kode, a company that curates life sciences hubs.
Both guests featured alongside Harrison Street, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and Blackstone’s life sciences property arm BioMed Realty in a groundbreaking report into the UK life sciences sector co-authored by Blackstock Consulting, Savills and Perkins&Will.
Hamilton sees clustering as key to achieving the government’s oft-repeated ‘levelling up’ agenda: “The UK does well today in terms of building companies out of various universities across the country. Where we struggle is in building enough mass in one particular place to establish a true biotech community. There are some in Oxford and Cambridge, but we don’t have a self-sustaining ecosystem in the way Boston or San Francisco does.”
Discussing the OxCam Arc, Hamilton points to the problem of connectivity. “If you fly into Heathrow, how long is it going to take you to get into the Arc? Probably more than an hour.”
One of Syncona’s portfolio companies is Autolus, whose lead asset is developing for an unmet need among thousands of adult patients for treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a form of cancer. Clusters will be crucial for these kinds of life-saving technologies, with Hamilton pointing out that Autolus requires “more than just labs. They’re running a clinical trial, they’re building out their commercial capabilities. They’re doing manufacturing.”
As head of strategy at Source Bioscience, Haeg implements strategic initiatives for a range of life sciences clients. Earlier this year, she founded Science Kode, which looks at solutions for creating life science clusters. Haeg argues that one of the key barriers faced by new life science companies is finding space in the right location, and not paying an arm and a leg for it.
She suggests that the market has over-relied on the traditional science park model, and questions whether the sector needs as many as are currently on the market – adding that the strategy does scientists a disservice. “We should split large parks into smaller, key locations, and make more of a hub for them,” she suggests.
And as Hamilton argues: “Building a science company is a lot more than hiring a bunch of scientists with some pipettes. There’s a whole infrastructural organisation around them that actually isn’t scientific at all. It involves HR, legal, and management functions. Science parks are too lab-focused.”
Both point to the potential of London’s King’s Cross, with Hamilton explaining: “You’re in a community that stretches across north London, including the Royal Free Hospital, University College Hospital, and the associated research institutes like the Francis Crick Institute. You’re on the train line out to Cambridge or Stevenage, and you’re not far from three international airports. So in terms of connectivity, it’s a really good site. It’s also a vibrant place that people enjoy being in.”
“Retail spaces can be converted into labs quite easily, more than actual office space - and there’s a ton of retail space in King’s Cross”, Haeg adds. “Dedicated space like this would give touch points for scientists to get more exposure and present one front door.”
The opportunity that areas like King’s Cross present is part of the reason Haeg founded Science Kode. She argues that the success of life sciences real estate is inextricably linked to its proximity to scientific capacity, requiring the curation of a combined academic, scientific, and investment zone.
Looking forward, Hamilton predicts that this year, investors will be looking for “more scale-up space of the 20- to 200-person sort. More landlords who have a better understanding of the market. And a much greater familiarity with the model and the knowledge that if this company goes under, a new one will just take its place on broadly very similar terms to the existing lease.”
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