From the big names behind the COVID vaccines to the innovators shaping the healthcare of tomorrow, the biotech sector was back together for in-person discussion, debate & networking at Bio Integrates 2022.
The past two years have presented new challenges, especially for the biotech sector. From working tirelessly to tackle an unprecedented pandemic to riding a wave of innovation off the back of an increased worldwide interest in health, it’s been a busy time for the life sciences. With the sector realising the importance of connection and collaboration like never before, but being restricted to online platforms, it was great to see 300+ delegates meet face-to-face at Leonardo Royal Hotel London Tower Bridge – plus almost 100 joining online – for Bio Integrates 2022.
As Life Science Integrates’ first in-person conference in since 2019, there was a real buzz in the air, with innovator areas for start-ups to present exciting projects, exhibition stands for connections to be made, and three vibrant panel rooms where delegates from all areas of the drug discovery pathway gathered to discuss and debate the biggest topics facing biotech. Martino Picardo, Chairman of Discovery Park, acknowled this atmosphere, opening the conference with the phrase “you can really feel the buzz”. In what promised to be an exciting time for life sciences, he challenged delegates as to whether biotech is building the right teams fast enough, attracting the right skills, and tapping into the skills of the future.
The event centred around the three themes of ‘people’, ‘products’ & ‘projections’ which were present right from the start, with two fireside chats providing valuable perspectives from different vantage points in the sector. Jeito Capital’s Andreas Wallnoefer shared his journey from ‘big pharma’ to biotech to venture capital, which gave him an appreciation of the contrasting approaches to drug development. “The source of innovation, the research quality, and the talent pool of entrepreneurs are essential to making a region a hotspot,” he stated. Dr Ruth McKernan CBE shared her optimism for the sector: “biotech and pharma are some of the major industries that contribute to the UK economy, but what we need now is to embrace new technologies – coding, digital, big data,” she advocated. “Smart entrepreneurial people exist in both academia and industry across all backgrounds and demographics – we need to find them and invest in them.”
On the topic of ‘people’, three main themes dominated: culture, collaboration, and diversity. Business consultant Kathryn Simpson introduced the importance of building a healthy company culture, leading a panel discussion on how management teams and leadership structures can achieve this, with the take-home point of a need for good, clear communication.
Bridging the gap between different research cultures was the focus of the ‘Living on the Edge’ session. “Biotech has always been a multidisciplinary industry – biologists, chemists, computer scientists – there are lots of great companies at that interface,” claimed Neil Torbett, Phoremost. Arctoris’ Martin Bittner stressed the importance of communication, stating that “if you want to bring people together from different backgrounds, you need a common language that applies to everyone – clinicians, scientists, engineers.” Ayokunmi Ajetunmobi, We Are Pioneer Group, agreed, advocating for proper education to facilitate the mindset shift required to develop fully interdisciplinary teams. At the heart of interdisciplinary collaboration are the “glue people” who sit just outside each discipline and facilitate connection, explained Vicky Steadman, Sai Life Sciences. “It’s just the beginning,” claimed Natalie Huther, Nanoform, “all these collaborations are key to delivering a benefit to patients, and we need to keep the patient in mind.”
One particularly thought-provoking session was ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(d)s’, which saw six successful female businesswomen discuss diversity and inclusivity. RSA’s Jo Pisani led the discussion, stating that “If we could boost investment in female led businesses, we could boost the economy by $2.5 trillion.” But progress is slow: “20 years ago when I was at university, people questioned why most professors were ‘old white men’ and I told them that it was changing,” recalled Suzanne Dilly, ValiRx, “but 20 years on, it hasn’t changed fast enough.” Claire Thompson, Agility Life Sciences, picked up on some of the common misperceptions facing women: “We’re often called ‘too’ something – too bossy, too nice, too quiet, too loud, too arrogant. it’s not about making women act more like men, it’s about letting them have their own way of showing passion.” All panellists agreed that a diverse culture was about much more than just fixing the gender gap. “Gender’s an easy way to flag up inequalities, but we’re talking about diversity of traits, talent, and thinking – this has been proven time and time again to be more productive for businesses” said Kate Rowley, Global Bio Fund. Alison Wilson, BioPhorum, agreed, stating that “it’s about building diverse organisations that perform better – we need thought and style diversity rather than just male-female diversity.” Claire suggested how to bring this into action – “diversity doesn’t just happen, we need to build it by design. I don’t tell my daughter to be good at school, I tell her to be fearless.” Tessa Pugh, Pharma Review, ended the session by addressing motherhood, sharing optimism: “I’m a mum, I took 8 years off, and I learnt so much at home with my children that I then brought back into the business.”
The ‘products’ theme captured a broad spectrum – from who creates the products to innovative products of the future. With a growing focus on the health of both ourselves and the environment there is increased interest, pressure, regulation, and legislation around the ethics, provenance, and sustainability of products. Reflecting on this change, Nazneen Rahman of YewMaker and AstraZeneca hosted a fascinating discussion, asking contributors from leading pharmaceutical companies, innovative biotechs, CDMOs and the NHS whether the sector is ready to embrace new market opportunities.
Developing pharmaceuticals takes collaboration and partnership, and working with the right people at the right time is integral to success. The ‘Get Out(sourced)!’ session, facilitated by tranScrip’s Paul Branthwaite, focused on strategic partnerships, defined as a partnership that is “continually wanting to improve” by Alan Lahaise, PCI Services. The panel reflected on the value of CDMOs as a pool of very high levels of skill, experience and tailored expertise: “It’s absolutely crucial that new biotechs and start-ups form really close relationships with CROs and CDMOs,” stated Bodil Van Niel, Charles River Laboratories. All contributors agreed that communication, integration, and trust were key to success. “Outsourcing works well when the company’s aims are well defined and communicated clearly,” explained Steve Trim, Venomtech. Claire Patterson, SEDA Pharmaceutical Development Services, added that the most successful projects are “those where we’ve been fully integrated into the client’s team with full access and understanding.” Peter MacLennan, Tailored Clinical Research Solutions, expressed the viewpoint of CROs and CDMOs, explaining that “it’s not just about speed-dating. Clients take time to trust you, but when they do then you’re really onto something good.” Maura McArdle, QuayPharma, echoed this point: “it’s about trust. You need to develop that close relationship and trust first.”
With increased collaboration, protecting IP is an important consideration. This was discussed in a session hosted by James Fry, Mills & Reeve, where he asked delegates from biotechs, universities and patent firms how to best plan an efficient and cost-effective IP strategy. On the theme of ownership, some companies make the decision to move on, scale up and sell out. Richard Weaver, Sygnature Discovery, discussed success stories from those who have sold their companies, with the panel sharing their thoughts and advice for start-ups. A key takeaway was to remember what success ultimately means in healthcare, which was perfectly summed up by Jo Craig, NeRRe Therapeutics: “success for me is bringing medicines to the patients that need them.”
The ‘products’ theme ended by looking to the future with the ‘Fuelling the Genetic Medicine Revolution’ session, hosted by Jonathan Appleby, Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult. With a strong group of delegates from exciting companies in this rapidly moving field, the panel reflected on the future of nucleic acid vaccines after their success in the COVID pandemic. Discussion focussed on speed-to-market, faster scale-up, and safety as panellists looked ahead to a new era of global-scale mass production for cold-chain-free advanced therapeutics.
Over recent years, the sector has seen increased investment and ambitious government targets, but how can this be maximised to create value? The Government’s Industrial Strategy and commitment to life science funding relies on companies scaling their science in the UK. Sally Ann Forsyth, Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, asked “how do you scale up in a fragmented ecosystem?” in the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ panel session, featuring delegates from the UK’s catapult organisations, ventures groups, life sciences catalysts, investment firms and more. “The UK is 3rd in the world for start-ups and 13th for scale-ups,” explained Irene Graham, ScaleUp Institute, identifying where progress is needed.
‘Value’ was brought up in multiple sessions and was covered in depth in the ‘Value In, Value Out’ discussion, facilitated by Kath Mackay, Bruntwood SciTech. “Can you accelerate a product AND maximise value or are they mutually exclusive?” challenged Jamie Unwin, Nanoform, explaining his vision of developing formulations with infinite futures instead of accelerating drugs to the clinic using dead-end routes. The panel focused on bridging the gulf between early-stage university spin-outs and later-stage industry: “it’s important to help academia to develop efficient and scalable manufacturing processes to get products into clinical trials. They need access to expertise, funding, and the right collaborations,” explained Clare Trippett, CPI. This opinion was shared by Martin Doorbar, Ellipses, who expressed the need to allow people from academia and industry to excel in their individual areas of expertise. The panel praised the incredible support of funds such as Innovate UK, but highlighted the need for more support at very early stages: “there’s an absence of education – we’re expecting people who aren’t trained in the commercial and business aspects to just be able to do it” stated Andy Hill, Nu-Vision Biotherapies. Louwai Muhammed, CoSyne Therapeutics, brought the discussion of value back to the patient: “getting a drug to the patient is the only real asset you actually generate. Start at the patient population rather than the molecule – it’s a subtle difference in strategy but it means the whole world.”
Value also comes from partnerships, and selecting the best partner is essential. In the ‘Transfer Targets’ session, Kevin Cox, Biorelate, turned the focus to funding: inundated with potential translational science projects, how do university tech departments select which ones to back? As US investment and commercialisation models increasingly come to the UK, the landscape is changing, and delegates from incubator companies, venture groups, research charities, and university business departments shared their experiences. When looking for funding, do you pick your investors, or do they pick you? This important question was posed by Nathan Sigworth, PharmaCCX, in the ‘Where You Lead’ session in which delegates discussed the importance of choosing the right investors for biotech.
With the COVID pandemic still making its impact felt, the prospect of future pandemics is a key focus of the drug discovery sector. The biggest session of the day, hosted by Phil Packer, Innovate UK, saw leading names in the field of vaccine development reflect on learnings from COVID and future preparedness. Dame Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford Project Leader for the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, revealed how her team were able to work at such speed. “I was working with a wide team of people who have extensive experience at each stage of the process and worked closely together,” she explained. This included close collaboration and innovative working models with regulators: “the MRHA did rolling reviews of the process – they took each completed piece of the dossier as it was completed and reviewed it piece by piece.” Reflecting on her team’s success, she highlighted the importance of starting from a position of preparedness – “because of our history and experience, we could bring it all together very, very fast.”
Sheuli Porkess, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine & Actaros Consultancy, focused on connecting the many groups of people – industry, academia, public health, the NHS, charities, and patients – to best combine expertise. She highlighted four key areas of collaboration: planning together to think ahead; working together to deliver products to patients; learning together to understand what’s needed; and reflecting together on future improvements. On the theme of reflection, Doris-Ann Williams MBE, BIVDA, looked back on the successes and areas for improvement in the UK’s pandemic response. She praised the vaccines, therapeutics, and the quick development of the lighthouse labs, and stressed that while diagnostics could have been handled better, the testing programme did have its benefits – “the public are now more aware of testing and diagnostics than ever before. They know the buzz words – specificity, sensitivity – we need to build on this.”
“I’d hate us to fall back to ‘business as normal’,” stated Janet Hemingway CBE, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, looking to the future of drug development. “We’re not going to be able to develop every drug as fast as the COVID vaccines, but there are things we can do to shorten the time to market, get costs down, and get the drugs to the patients who need them.” Robin Cohen, Emergex Vaccines, agreed, stating that we need to “take innovation from academia and biotech and apply big pharma’s resources to make it a reality.”
The panel tackled many of the key issues that surfaced during the vaccine roll-out. One important topic was the need to get vaccine capability and capacity to the whole world, especially African countries: “design it with the patient in mind so we develop it with a strategy in place to get it to the people who need it,” advocated Sheuli. Regarding the crucial topic of vaccine hesitancy, Janet explained the success she’d seen in Public Health Liverpool when the city was faced by high hesitancy levels: “we pooled together social scientists and marketing companies and local leaders from those hesitant communities – it had stunning results.” And finally, Trevor Jones CBE, who was a member of Patrick Vallance’s Vaccine Taskforce, explained the government’s 100 Days Mission, with the aim to make diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines available within 100 days of any potential future pandemic threat becoming a reality.
Reflecting on the event, Life Science Integrates founders Christopher Watt and Samuel Thangiah were delighted to see the event held in-person again. “This is what it’s about,” said Samuel, “we’re so glad to be able to bring the biotech sector together in this way and we hope that many future partnerships will come of today’s event.” Christopher echoed the sentiment: “MedTech Integrates is approaching fast and we’re looking forward to connecting delegates from across the medical technology community with a similar buzz and vibrancy of Bio Integrates. We’d like to say a huge thank you to all delegates, speakers, partners, and sponsors who continue to support us and make these important events possible.”
Full recordings of all the discussions from Bio Integrates are available online to watch on demand. Don’t forget to register for MedTech Integrates on 21st June and check the Life Science Integrates website for more details on upcoming events including PharmaTech Integrates, Advanced Therapies Integrates, and the flagship event Pharma Integrates.