Babraham/CUHP healthcare conference considers pharma changes
The ‘From Idea to Maturity’ conference was subtitled ‘How can the Cambridge cluster continue to grow its life science industry?’ Hands up anyone hearing an undertone of anxiety in that question – but is growth in the city’s life sciences sector really in any doubt?
It may look as if the life sciences sector in Cambridge is mining a seam all the way to a golden future. And the present is pretty golden too – 440 life sciences companies in the Cambridge cluster contribute £4billion to the UK economy. But there are caveats.
Firstly, the fundamental business model is changing, the conference heard, and companies need to think ever more holistically.
“We teach analysis, not synthesis, not since Plato anyway,” said Dr Uday Phadke, CEO at Cartezia, in the early afternoon session. Something even more exciting could be just around the corner, so you have to radicalise your thinking about what is possible. Director of innovations at the Wellcome Trust, Prof Stephen Caddick, went further in his keynote. “Consensus is the enemy in effective decision-making,” he insisted.
Second, there’s a worry about disruptive business models. Five years ago, disruptive was shiny, bright, exciting. Now, people are looking at the small print: what’s the cost of breaking down industries to adapt to new technology? What’s going to be the real effect for healthcare of AI, of gene editing, of all the data that’s being collected?
“We didn’t start out to invent something, we set out to do something that would help millions of people,” he said.
“We’re trying as people, at our core, to do the right thing for patients,” Dr David Harland, medical head of personalised healthcare at Roche UK, said in the last session of the day.
Dr Annette Doherty, SVP global head of product development and clinical supply at GSK, concurred. “You need the weight of evidence of the science to drive the business model. I do believe that science is at the heart of our business model.”
Thirdly, there’s an increasing demand for talent – not just chief executives, but the right through to the lab. There’s a global market for talent in the life sciences sector which is necessary because Cambridge is too small a pool to work from, but the offering needs to be continually improved, from improving facilities to having a better transport system. And 5G!
“In a large company you have the opportunity to develop talent rather than buying it in,” said Dr Harland.
“We have to move much faster and create a value proposition for the smartest people in the world,” Prof Caddick noted.
Finally, there’s just the simple fear of the unknown.
“One day a teenager in a t-shirt will invent a drug that will cure something and they’ll give it away for free,” asserted Prof Caddick. “Young people are going to drive an enormous change over what we see as our value proposition.”
“None of the pharmaceutical companies at this table is at risk of extinction but the product potentially is,” said Dr Ian Smith, deputy medical director at Royal Papworth Hospital of the challenge ahead.
Dr Doherty spotted a gauntlet. “The world you describe would require a far faster cycle – which we’re trying to do,” she said.
The life sciences sector is in a fascinating place in that it has to pivot (possibly only slightly) or face an insurgency further down the road and this event, organised for a private audience by Babraham Research Campus and Cambridge University Health Partners (CUHP), provided a useful snapshot. A new healthcare environment is now taking shape globally, which last week Bill Gates addressed in the Cambridge Independent when he said: “In the UK, the goal of healthcare is to keep you healthy. In Chad, the goal of healthcare is to keep you alive.”
In this new framework, where staying healthier longer is the goal, rather than fire-fighting the consequences of health breakdown, the NHS plays a vital role, says Andy Williams, vice president for Cambridge strategy and operations at AstraZeneca. Speaking during an afternoon break, he said that to advance the life sciences agenda it’s best to know what the NHS wants of its suppliers.
“The NHS places the value of innovation in a fairly linear way,” he said. “So for instance, if you have diabetes they will provide a treatment, but not necessarily look to deliver a cure. Changing its paradigm is not what the NHS is about. The question is how to encourage innovation in the NHS without breaking their budget. It’s not lacking in innovation. The industry needs to be making treatments which are cures.”
AstraZeneca, of course, has extensive connections with the UK’s health service.
“As a large company working with the NHS, we’re building a relationship but if it’s a small biotech they might get frustrated,” Andy said.
Also out, about and chatting was Malcolm Lowe-Lauri, executive director of CUHP and the conference’s famously quick-witted presenter.
“There’s a good case for continuing instability,” he said cheerfully. “As per what Alan Hirzil [Abcam CEO and keynote] said, as soon as things get stable and happy they go flat.”
The life sciences have a pivotal role in global health care and Cambridge has a globally successful life sciences hub. The new era of genomics has reformatted the patient/doctor relationship, created new opportunities, and – crucially – retained public trust.
“The business model is changing as patients want to be more involved,” said Dr Doherty during a panel Q&A. “For instance, in our work with 23andMe, patients own their own DNA data and wish to engage with different clinical models.”
The traditional pharma model “has a higher risk of failure than anyone is willing to accept, but it’s trying to do the right thing”, concluded Dr Harland.
Let’s leave the last word to Prof Caddick, who told the audience not to look for easy fixes.
“Innovation is about discipline, planning and perspiration,” he said. “Innovation cultures have a high tolerance for failure but this only works if you have an incredibly high performance culture, so people know that if they do fail, it’s not from incompetence. The definitive killer experiment rarely exists. That’s a shame, but you need a high-performance culture which works when everything is really aligned.
“I’m opinionated but my team is more thoughtful in a 360-degrees way, so I’m always seeking diverse views, not to have an argument but to get to a decision that is really well informed.
“Why wins from successful innovation? It’s always the next people at the company, not the ones there now. It’s brutal. Sometimes you’re telling people they have to move on, or the smartest people have already moved on. It won’t work if you have cultural conservatism.”