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Q&A with Steve Bagshaw: What’s on the agenda for the new chair of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult?

HVM Catapult chair Steve Bagshaw with chief executive Katherine Bennett

High Value Manufacturing Catapult

5 min read Partner content

Steve Bagshaw has been appointed as chair of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. Following the announcement, Steve sat down with his new colleagues to talk about the key issues that will be keeping him busy in the role.

Congratulations on your appointment as chair of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. When you look at HVM Catapult’s role in UK manufacturing, what are you most excited about working on?

As I see it, one of the key jobs of the HVM Catapult is making sure innovative manufacturing businesses get the support they need. Not just on the technical side, but also with supply chain help, funding guidance, or policy expertise – everything that a Catapult can offer. HVM Catapult has just started a new five-year funding cycle after signing a new Grant Funding Agreement with Innovate UK, so we have the right resources ready to access.

Supporting SMEs is essential, particularly when they are taking an idea and developing it at speed. I know that SMEs are absolutely crucial in the UK economy from my time at CPI, one of the HVM Catapult centres catalysing the adoption of advanced technologies and manufacturing solutions to benefit people, places and our planet. When you talk to an SME founder, you always sense their energy and their excitement, and the frustrations of not being able to go quick enough.

Helping SME manufacturers to become more productive and efficient – environmentally and economically – must be a focus for the industry. For example, if we can help SMEs reduce their energy usage with innovative manufacturing solutions without sacrificing productivity, they can cut their energy costs and environmental impact at the same time. 

What have been the proudest moments of your career to date?

I was very proud to lead what became Fujifilm Diosynth through that transition. I remember when there were maybe 200 employees in the UK business - I think they have a thousand employees on Teesside now. The investment the company is making in new facilities is just short of £500million. That’s globally competitive biotech capacity being built in the UK, and I’m very pleased to have played my part in it.

I am also extremely proud of my role as an Industry Advisor on the UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce. In an extremely short space of time - just eight months - we created a safe and effective vaccine. We overcame regulatory challenges and supply chain troubles, achieving what some people said would be impossible. It was an incredible experience working with a brilliant team who were all 100% committed to the cause, and together we saved many, many lives.

What is biotech? How does it relate to manufacturing?

Cells are like little biological factories. Biotech is all about growing little factories which convert raw materials into something else, something more complex.

Most people have some idea of how you make beer. You take your ingredients – malt, hops, water - and you add live yeast. The yeast cells convert sugar in the malt to alcohol, fermenting the mixture and, after a while, you have beer. Biotech is like that, but instead of brewing alcohol, we can make proteins which fight diseases.

Take the COVID vaccine – what was being injected made makes your bodies think its fighting a certain disease, so your cells make the right proteins to fight off the virus. Those proteins then protect you if you were attacked by the disease later. We can also work on creating a protein mix that helps your cells to fight diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

How has the biotech and life sciences landscape changed over recent decades?

The fundamental big difference is that before, with traditional pharmaceuticals, you were using chemistry to make a drug. Now we can make much more complicated products using biology. The UK has great biotech research, but we also need to be the place where commercial scale up is being done.

Ireland have done a great job of attracting life sciences companies to invest and set up there as a gateway to Europe. If American pharmaceutical companies want to build an international presence today, they will look at Singapore or Ireland. That’s shown how a country can really make itself attractive to investment and reap the rewards.

What do you think the next few decades will bring for sustainable biotech?

The biological manufacturing business has grown exponentially over the last 20 years, and it's going to double between 2020 and 2030 in terms of market size - so the opportunities are enormous.

At the moment, you have to make almost every biological drug in batches. You put your starting materials in a tank. You add the cells which will make those materials into your desired product, and you grow it. After a while, you harvest and purify the product. That process can take three or four weeks, sometimes turning 20 tonnes of raw materials into a kilo – or in the worst cases, a gram – of final product.

But if I want to make the quantities of drugs we need to make healthcare affordable for the world, I need to find a process that’s continuous. Then, I could feed a regular supply of raw materials to some specialised cells and have the end product constantly made, which would be more efficient and cost a lot less than growing and harvesting in batches.

It’s also exciting when you think about creating other useful substances in continuous processes. Replacing fossil-based products with sustainable biological alternatives is the Holy Grail of biotechnology in the next 25 years for me. We could make production prices a tenth or a hundredth of what they are today for some goods.

To be successful, we need a mixture of chemical and process engineers working hand in hand with biochemists and biologists. It’s a very multidisciplinary challenge to grapple with. We all need to be working together on new technology from the very start, so innovative science can be more easily commercialised later.

What do you do to relax?

I find myself out on the hills, in the football stadium or at church. I’m a Bradford City season ticket holder, I’m a lay preacher, and I’m a hillwalker. You can't walk enough in my opinion. The Yorkshire Dales are my first love.

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