Keith Powell: London needs a biotech boost


We have the skills base and the finance to build a biotech empire to rival that of California. What’s holding us back?

The economies of California and the UK are similar, as are the university networks. Why then, does California boast the most successful biotechnology companies and the UK no significant success?

San Francisco

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Sunny Intervals

28°C 82°F Max. Day Westerly4mph 6km/h 37% 1013mb Very good

It is not all about the weather, baseball or cricket, Shiraz or Fuller’s Best…Driving up Sandhill Road from Palo Alto to the freeway I-280 one notices HP and Lawyers but also many venture capital offices, built to service the ideas coming from Stanford and the biotech community from Palo Alto to Downtown San Francisco. 


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Heavy Rain Shower

17°C 63°F Max. Day West South Westerly6mph 10km/h 78% 1009mb Moderate

Sadly the M4 corridor does not have the same concentration of venture finance.

Interestingly, the biotech community in the Bay area does not just form around Stanford, but also around UCSF and around the existing biotech “superpowers”; Genentech, Biogen-Idec etc.   In short there is a community established and successful in the Bay area, there is not in London. 

This means that the development of biotech in the Bay area is supported by experienced investors, management and scientists; over time experience from the likes of Amgen gets ploughed into biotechs of a new generation – this is not true in London, largely because any successful UK start up is quickly converted into cash through a trade sale rather than developing as a company. 

While it is possible for each of the interest groups to blame the other – universities to bemoan the lack of finance, investors to moan about the lack of experienced management and management the lack of support, this is not helpful. We need to be joined in an effort to establish the London area as a powerhouse of biotechnology. 

In the London area I include Oxford and Cambridge. We need that level of critical mass to ensure the ideas and the finance come together with a supportive environment, with facilities being key to help move ideas fast, from conception to delivery, into the hands of doctors for the benefit of patients.

Go in the opposite direction from Palo Alto to highway 101 there are many areas where laboratory space and facilities are available to rent at rents less than 10% of the cost in the London area.  The community extends to developers and facility providers, giving the scientific concepts support in the most practical way. 

Driving out of London on the A13 we see Canary Wharf and shopping centres and, further out, Dagenham, but where are those cheap and efficient developments to provide the core base?

Biotechnology provides more than 250,000 jobs in the Californian economy, a rough figure for the UK would be 20% of that. Yet we have the skills base and we have the financial base to do better. Each job for a skilled biotechnology worker is estimated to create almost two jobs in the less skilled parts of the local ecomomy.

Let us see a focus on the triangle between London, Oxford and Cambridge, real determination to support companies with high growth potential and a determination to see a little more sunshine in an industry with tremendous growth prospects.

Dr Keith Powell is chairman of drug discovery organisation Domainex. Dr. Powell spent a number of years in California as head of the chemistry business of Maxygen. When he returned to the UK, he joined the Bloomsbury Bioseed Fund as entrepreneur in residence, becoming chief executive officer of several companies.