Friday, 8 October 2010

UK Biotech - Waiting for Godot?

"Waiting for Godot" follows the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and unsuccessfully for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim him as an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognise him were they to see him. To occupy themselves, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide — anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay".
Over the last 12 months we have seen many biotechs act in a similar manner. They open their offices in the morning, make coffee, discuss the world, go to networking meetings and wait for the miraculous Godot to arrive, bringing with him the funding they require to continue actually doing something constructive.
In many ways we can’t blame them.  If you knew that to continue your research operations as you should would burn all your cash away within 6 months, but by downsizing as far as you can and putting projects into hibernation would allow you to eek that cash out for 18 months, well, what would you do? 
However, when and if Godot ever arrives he will find a company that no longer has the infrastructure to rapidly take forward its research projects. He will also notice that the patent clock has been ticking and the value of the company’s IP will have eroded.  He will certainly ask the question, “What have you achieved over the last year?” Even if Godot brings money with him, he might not want to invest.
Perhaps he is still here, but, like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s play, biotech companies would not recognise him if they saw him. They know that he used to look like a Venture Capitalist, but he put that costume aside some years ago.  For a while he looked like a pharmaceutical company and many biotechs are still looking for him in that guise.  Perhaps it is time for another organisation to assume the role.
The UK government believes that it has created a mini-Godot through the Office of Life Sciences. They hope that by investing £150 million on a matched basis with the private sector that a fund of £1 billion can be developed over the next 10 years.  This is a laudable intention, but it just might be too little too late and be accompanied by too much red tape.
So, along with our clients, we wait. 
At present the UK is still holding onto to second place in the global league table of pharmaceutical innovators, but other countries are catching up.  This could be partly because UK biotech can’t afford to do much and partly because many of the innovators have already moved out
CH&B is situated at the heart of the Cambridge biocluster - the most important biocluster in Europe - and yet in the last 12 months 95% of our revenue has come from outside the UK.  We have heard similar stories from our competitors. If Godot doesn’t show up soon, like many other companies active in this sector, we may have to reconsider our location.  If the exodus of innovators and support companies continues to its extreme end, Godot may not visit the UK at all.