The UK’s medicines discovery Service and Supply sector is thriving: Driving innovation and global competitiveness

Posted On: 
13th May 2019

Despite positively impacting employment, economic growth and delivering better medicines for patients, our Service and Supply companies are often-overlooked, says Chris Molloy.

In 2015, the UK life sciences industry added £30.4bn to our GDP, £8.6bn in tax income and supported 482,000 jobs. Our medicines discovery sector is diverse, vibrant and growing, with SMEs at its heart. If the sector is well supported, it is estimated that by 2025 the UK could support an additional 33,000 biotech jobs and an extra 50 biotech companies at the high-value stage of clinical development. Meanwhile, despite being a major class of employer, our Service and Supply companies are often-overlooked. UK contract research is truly world-class, attracting significant foreign investment and helping to anchor UK biotech and academic IP in the UK. To maintain our national competitiveness at a time of intense international competition, our Services and biotech firms need easier access to hot new technologies such as AI and advanced new discovery models, and to be effectively networked.

A new national report ‘State of the Discovery Nation 2019’, published by Medicines Discovery Catapult and the BioIndustry Association, provides key insights from across today’s drug discovery community showing 1,500 UK SMEs actively driving economic growth. Of these 1,500, 20% are classical biotechs, focussed on developing high value products. These biotechs employee high value staff, but in small focussed teams. In fact, 60% of them have fewer than five employees. The report also highlights a thriving Service and Supply sector that accounts for 80% of the sector’s SME businesses and 90% of its total employment.  

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Global productivity in drug R&D is falling. The top ten pharmaceutical companies currently have an average return on R&D investment of 1.9%. They are therefore increasingly reliant on biotechs, as sources of innovation, and outsourcing to Service and Supply companies for high quality skills and facilities.

The importance of the world-class UK Service and Supply sector should not be underestimated or undersold. They attract inward investment and help UK academics and SMEs innovate their products here, rather than offshore.

The Service and Supply market in the Asia-Pacific region was once recognised as the fastest growing in the world, driven largely on price. However, as the focus switches to improved predictability, scientific rigour and productivity, the world is now turning to the UK for high-quality R&D services and expertise. Business is coming home. It is therefore vital that the UK supports its Service and Supply companies as sources of high value international trade.

In addition to international promotion, they will need pioneering products and services to remain competitive. Emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and advanced human cell culture models – grown in 3 dimensions, on organ-like scaffolds, in complex combinations or on microchips – are seen by the community as ‘hot areas’ that will help transform the industry.  However, these new tools need to be shown to work in an industrial environment before industry will adopt them. This is where the Catapults play a unique role.

The Medicines Discovery Catapult is helping industry to validate the best of these exciting technologies. It is a national-scale R&D collaborator with deep sector knowledge, R&D skills, and unique access to these emerging technologies. It tests them as they will be used, with UK biotech’s new drug candidates. Industrialising new tools in this way makes it easier for Service and Supply companies to adopt them as future commercial offerings. It also helps new medicines move closer to the clinic and adds value to UK companies.

Through a new Discovery Services platform, the Catapult is also networking UK Service and Supply companies making it easier for UK biotechs and international players to benefit from the wealth of expertise in the thriving community of medicines discovery SMEs.

By understanding and working with the community to address what they know to be important, the Medicines Discovery Catapult – part of UKRI’s Catapult Network – is helping it build and deploy new products and services – positively impacting employment, economic growth and delivering better medicines for patients, faster.