How to navigate the jump from academia to a career in biotechnology: The UK Biotech Landscape

 

By Ian M. Parnham, Outreach Manager and Writer, Science Entrepreneur Club

This is the second article in a series on navigating the jump from academia to a career in biotechnology [1]. Though this immensely vibrant vocational space requires much more than the few words shared here, this article highlights the exceptional opportunities, success stories and investment pouring into the UK biotechnology landscape.

The UK biotechnology economic landscape 

A current headache for the life science sector at large is the UK’s makeshift surgery to separate itself from the EU. Despite large uncertainty looming around Brexit and a concomitant reluctance to invest, the UK biotechnology sector is booming. “More UK biotech companies are maturing […] with UK biotech company IPOs raising more than twice as much money in 2017 than 2016,” one can read in the UK BioIndustry Association (BIA) report [2].

From 2011 to 2017, the UK attracted £28bn in investment compared to France’s, not exactly measly, £11bn and Germany’s £9.3bn [3]. In December 2018, the UK biotechnology sector received another £1.3bn cash injection by the government’s life sciences sector deal, tailored to “create high-paid, high-quality jobs” [4]. Reading the press release announcing this ambitious plan you might discover your prospective e

Fig.1 -  Major contributors in the life-science ecosystem [8].

Fig.1 - Major contributors in the life-science ecosystem [8].

In 2017, Professor Sir John Bell led the creation of a report with which he advised the UK government to maintain and expand the healthy life sciences sector [5]. HM government incorporated his advice in an industrial strategy that signals current and future intent to advance science innovation [6]. Entitled ‘A Vision for the Life Science Sector in 2025’,  the BIA aims to develop “the third global cluster” rivalling Boston and the BayArea [7]. 

The UK life science landscape (Fig.1) is clearly conducive to these big plans and the golden triangle is its epicentre [S1-S3]. 

Biotechnology success stories 

Extensive recent successes demonstrate the lucrative and enticing biotech sector. A multitude of fields within biotechnology deserves the spotlight. Here are some highlights:

Monoclonal antibodies  

Development of the first commercial fully humanised monoclonal antibody (humAb) is arguably UK biotech’s greatest success story. From its discovery at the Medical Research Council (MRC) labs in Cambridge, Humira (Human Monoclonal Antibody In Rheumatoid Arthritis) heralded a rising biotech star [9].  Startups.co.uk top fast 50 winners based on revenue growth includes two healthcare and life-sciences companies [10]. Kymab Ltd, venturing to continually improve antibody discovery technologies, ranks 33rd in the list mentioned above, with 763% revenue growth, and third in Beauhurst’s life science companies list of highest funding earners [11].  

Sequencing  

Sequencing the human genome revolutionised disease diagnostics, enabling the detection of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and a barrage of new innovative paths to treat illnesses. Oxford Nanopore Technologies produces high-performance sequencing technology [12] and has entered the illustrious list of UK unicorn businesses [13,14]. Unicorn businesses are startups which reach a valuation in excess of $1bn. It also tops Beahurst’s life science companies list for highest funding received [11]. 

Synthetic Biology 

Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) lists 74 companies within the synthetic biology space [15, S4-S6]. The target application areas span energy production, materials, agri-food, environmental protection, health and chemicals. Every known biotech enterprise overlaps with synthetic biology. See the SEC’s Green Biotech series for further inspiration [S7-S9].

Globally, in 2017, the synthetic biology companies depicted in Fig.2 alone raised $1.7bn [16]. Currently, while the US dominates the synthetic biology startup scene, the UK comes second [17], demonstrating its strategic position within the field. Imperial College London, in particular, champions the UK’s green biotech revolution [18,19,20].

Fig.2 -  $1.7bn raised by the above Synthetic Biology companies in 2017 [16]

Fig.2 - $1.7bn raised by the above Synthetic Biology companies in 2017 [16]

Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI

Automation and AI have reaped huge dividends in biotech. London-based BenevolentAI harnesses informatics to expedite drug development processes [21]. It was founded in 2013 and reached unicorn business status within 2 years [22]. Synthace received $25.6m to automate biological laboratories [23]. Microsoft, Synthace and Oxford Biomedica initiated a collaboration to incorporate machine learning methods and automated lab experiments [24] – truly demonstrating the inter-disciplinary nature of automation and AI.  

These four brief overviews illustrate the breadth and scope for growth amongst the burgeoning biotech sector. The assured future investment by multinational conglomerates and the UK government promises to continue the expansion of the complex inter-disciplinary landscape. And there many more fields within biotech are showing promise: CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats), RNAi (ribonucleic acid interference), immunotherapy, antibiotic resistance, health tech [S10, S11], stem cells, vaccination, and plant biology are but a few [S12, S13]. Last but not least, cell and gene therapy, a prominent rising star, will receive its accolades in another post [S14].

These examples also highlight another important point. If like many others, you are embarking upon a life science career (pre- or post-PhD), and are privileged to freely choose your interest plotting a course for the next few years, peruse the landscape strategically. Take into consideration which sectors have a future. Look on which horses private investors and governments are placing their bets and you will have a helpful indicator where the future of life science is headed, at least in the near future.

Finally, one of the missions of the Science Entrepreneur Club is to provide you with ideas on how to follow your interests and prepare for your first or next step in the biotech space. Check our website [25] and its many resources [S7-S12] as an initial point of reference.


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