I have previously written about my visits to cities that have biotech clusters or aspire to have them, so thought it would be of interest to look at Liverpool, in the north west region of the UK.

Liverpool Three Graces 1024x576 Can Liverpool become a global biomedical hub?

The World Heritage city, most famous for the Beatles, is trying to boost its knowledge economy and, like many cities with universities and a teaching hospital, wants to promote biomedical innovation and generate more life science investment.

The big unanswered question is can Liverpool compete with the so-called Golden Triangle, bounded by Oxford, Cambridge and London, where most UK biotech companies can be found?

Last year, AstraZeneca announced it was closing its Alderley Park research facility (approx 38 miles from Liverpool, 18 miles from Manchester). In a major blow to the reputation of the north west of England as a base for biomedical R&D, the company said they would relocate 1600 R&D staff to Cambridge, where they plan to build a new £330M research facility.

The attraction of London as a global biomedical hub is also likely to increase once the Francis Crick Institute opens in 2015.  A huge 79,000m2 facility is currently under construction next to St Pancras International Railway Station in west London, offering fast and efficient connections with continental Europe.

The participants and their investments are:

  • UK Medical Research Council (£300 million)
  • Cancer Research UK (£160 million)
  • Wellcome Trust (£120 million)
  • University College London (£40 million)
  • Imperial College London (£40 million)
  • Kings College London (£40 million)

The new high-speed rail network (HS2) from London that will significantly reduce journey times to regional cities, will sadly not reach Liverpool. It will, however, extend to Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, making all of those regional cities much more attractive to entrepreneurs who want fast access to London.

So what does Liverpool offer you ask?

Dedicated VC funding

The North West Fund (European money to promote development and regeneration) has a £25M ($40M) biomedical sector fund, managed by Liverpool based VC firm Spark Impact.

I spoke with Investment Director, Dr Penny Attridge, who was positive about Liverpool’s potential as a biomedical hub, despite the attraction of the “Golden Triangle”:

An innovative company will obtain investment wherever it is located, but it’s important in any cluster to have local investors who can provide valuable expertise. The funding available is, however, relatively small, and £19M has already been invested. For emerging biotech companies, the amount of money they need to fund clinical trials far exceeds what this fund can offer.

One only has to think of the $120M that Seattle based Juno Therapeutics attracted in its Series A initial funding round to put this in context.

Liverpool Science Park

Liverpool does have a Science Park located in the city center close to the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University

Dedicated infrastructure is necessary if you want to set up a biotech company. As Chris Mussion CEO of Liverpool Science Park told me, unlike a digital company you can’t set up a life sciences company in your front room. You need a facility that provides properly equipped laboratories.

While the location of the Liverpool Science Park is in the heart of the city, it is competing with over 80 others in the country.

Also in the North West, the former AstraZeneca facilities in Alderley Park are set to become a new BioHub, which will initially provide 36,000 sq ft of space – yet more serious competition for Liverpool. Last month AstraZeneca announced the Alderley Park site would be sold to Manchester Science Parks.

How does Liverpool Science Park differentiate itself from all the others? I spoke to Chief Executive Chris Musson:

Network of Teaching Hospitals and a future bio-campus at Royal Liverpool University Hospital

There is a bio-campus planned as part of the construction of a new Royal Liverpool University Hospital.  Much to my surprise when I turned up for an agreed interview with a hospital senior manager about the BioCampus plans, the Director of Communications banned them from providing any details.  As a result all they said on the record is that the new bio-campus will provide facilities for small and medium companies.  What these facilities are, how these companies will be funded, and what innovation/IP they will seek to develop remains to be seen. The devil as they say is in the details.

I was surprised at how unhelpful the Royal Liverpool University Hospital communications staff were, especially given the stiff competition they face for attention and awareness from the Golden Triangle and elsewhere.

While the hospital does participate in a lot of clinical trials, that in itself is not innovation, but leveraging your patient population.  In my view, you need to create an entrepreneurial mindset within the clinical staff of a hospital or a university, something that more enlightened areas such as Southampton University do very well indeed.

Although Liverpool does have a Cancer Research UK Centre, if I were looking to locate an oncology drug develop company outside of the Golden Triangle, I’d look to being close to The Christie Hospital (in nearby Manchester). It’s the largest cancer center in Europe and where Cancer Research UK is constructing a new research facility aimed at world-class excellence.

Conclusions:

Liverpool is highly likely to attract some funding and develop some small life science start-up companies by dint of having a teaching hospital and expertise from local universities.  There will always be local entrepreneurs and academic spin-offs who can access this funding.

Unfortunately, by the time the new bio-campus is developed, it will face increased competition from other regional centres with better connections and will find it tough to compete with the Golden Triangle.

To answer the original question – can Liverpool become a global biomedical hub – I really like Liverpool, and grew up on Merseyside, but the short answer to the question has to be answered with a brutally honest “No.”

There are, however, things that Liverpool can do:

Firstly, those involved in the Mersey bio community need to be more media friendly in order to get the message out about what Liverpool does offer. In addition to my negative experiences with the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, the head of the merseybio incubator (designed as an environment for start-up biotech companies) did not respond to two phone calls and an email requesting an interview.

If you want to be positioned positively in the minds of potential investors and entrepreneurs you need to get your message out.

Secondly, I think Liverpool is too small a biomedical cluster to grow significantly on its own. What it needs is to create closer links with Manchester and other nascent biomedical hubs in the North West such as the one being built on the site of the former AstraZeneca R&D facility at Alderley Park.

A cluster needs access to people, infrastructure, investment and innovation. Liverpool needs to overcome it’s traditional competition with Manchester (40 minutes away by train).

When I spoke to Robin Tudor from Liverpool John Lennon Airport, he said one thing the airport lacked it is global connectivity. Simply put you can’t easily fly from Boston to Liverpool on a major airline. There’s no service to Liverpool by a Star Alliance, SkyTeam or OneWorld carrier from a major hub airport in Europe.

Whether people in Liverpool like it or not, Manchester is the global gateway to the region.

If the UK government is not planning to extend the HS2 high-speed rail link to Liverpool (from London), then the Liverpool City Region should build it’s own high-speed rail link to Manchester.

This would allow the creation of a North West of England regional biomedical cluster. It’s hard not to see how this would create an economy of scale and infrastructure that would be more attractive for investment.

Whether there is the political will to develop closer ties to Manchester remains to be seen.

 Can Liverpool become a global biomedical hub?

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