Progress is threatened unless funding schemes can keep up with demand, says Eric Johnsson
The strength of the UK’s life sciences industry has never been clearer. Recent data from the BioIndustry Association (BIA) show that the sector raised more than £1 billion between June and August and is well on its way to hitting a record year for private investment. Life science companies are leading the fight against Covid-19, working with the government to deliver tests, vaccines and therapies at the scale needed to lift the lockdown and start an economic recovery.
This vital work brings together all parts of the life sciences ecosystem. The Oxford Covid-19 vaccine candidate is a prime example. The vaccine’s technology was invented and developed by researchers at the university’s Jenner Institute and biotech spin-out Vaccitech.
A partnership with the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca brings the know-how and resources for downstream development, large-scale manufacturing and global distribution. Another biotech company, Oxford Biomedica, has been enlisted to ensure the UK has a sufficient supply of the vaccine if it is validated.
Similar collaborations are underway in Covid-19 antibody research. The BIA Antibody Taskforce is a consortium of biotech companies, charities and academic groups based around the conviction that together they can achieve more than any individual organisation. Last month, the taskforce announced that it had identified differentiated antibody combinations that will be developed further as potential therapies for Covid-19.
Planning for the next crisis
The ability to rise to this challenge was not built overnight. Rather, it results from many years of successful industrial strategy.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), particularly its Innovate UK arm, are at the heart of this industrial strategy. They do a great job in supporting the ecosystem. But as we head into the long-awaited spending review this month, the government should recognise that without appropriate public investment, the life sciences sector might not be in such a strong position when the next public health crisis hits.
The Biomedical Catalyst, a grant funding programme run by Innovate UK, has been particularly important at the earliest and riskiest stages of biomedical R&D. Since its launch in 2012, the programme has helped create the vibrant, entrepreneurial and growing community of life sciences businesses that are collaborating with academia and the pharmaceutical industry in the current crisis.
An independent analysis from Ipsos MORI, commissioned by Innovate UK and published in October 2019, showed that this funding programme leverages in more than £5 of private investment for every £1 of public expenditure and enables companies to increase employment by 11-15 per cent over 3-5 years. The study also showed that companies that win Biomedical Catalyst grants increase their R&D investment by 93 per cent.
However, despite its success, the Biomedical Catalyst has no budget beyond 2020. What is more, data revealed in a freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by the BIA to UKRI show that the programme’s budget has not kept up with demand.
Low success rate
Six years ago, 31.3 per cent of applications scoring over the quality threshold received funding. Now, the figure stands at just
3.8 per cent. Even in a competitive funding environment, this is desperately low. The success rates for grant applications to the Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, for example, are both around 25 per cent.
The FOI response also shows that over the past three years, flat budgets have resulted in companies missing out on more than £530 million of Biomedical Catalyst funding, despite being judged by Innovate UK to be of high enough quality to be funded.
Extrapolating from the Ipsos MORI study, this could have leveraged approximately £2.5bn in additional private investment—fuelling the pipeline of future treatments that we all rely on.
Back the sector
The life sciences sector is essential to helping the UK economy bounce back quickly after Covid-19—in getting us out of lockdown, and attracting the foreign investment and creating the highly skilled jobs needed to underpin a rapid recovery.
The sector is strategically important to the UK’s preparedness for future pandemics and the supply of innovative medicines.
Experience shows that public investment in the sector is money well spent, and the government should use the spending review to back the sector by backing the Biomedical Catalyst and increasing its budget.
Eric Johnsson is policy and public affairs manager at the BioIndustry Association
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight