Inside Abcam's new £46million headquarters on Cambridge Biomedical Campus
Abcam is one of Cambridge’s greatest business success stories and there can be fewer better signs of that than its new £46million headquarters on the Biomedical Campus.
From its humble beginnings 21 years ago, when founder Jonathan Milner cycled around with an ice bucket containing a handful of antibodies to sell to researchers, it has blossomed into a unicorn selling a catalogue of over 100,000 products to more than 140 countries.
Walking inside its impressive new building, two things are immediately obvious: Abcam is anticipating further growth and science is at the heart of it.
Even before you get in the door, you can glimpse inside its labs through the glass. Science on show, Abcam calls it.
It is a growing theme in Cambridge’s scientific community, along with collaboration – a key reason why the life science research tools company has chosen the campus for its new home, of course.
The end of February was the first time in which all of its Cambridge employees were housed at the new HQ on Discovery Drive, following a phased move of its three Cambridge Science Park sites over three weekends.
“It has been fantastic to have everyone here in one place,” Nick Skinner, senior vice president, human resources, tells me as we settle down with a coffee in the welcoming and spacious canteen. “It’s the first time in 10 years that Abcam has been under one roof in Cambridge.
“Everyone has been overwhelmingly positive. Compared to our old, quite tired and cramped sites, we have a lot more space and much more flexibility.”
With 100,000 square feet, Abcam now has 75 per cent more room than before. No wonder its 450 employees are looking pleased as we walk around. There is scope for their numbers to swell to more than 600.
“We came here to give us space to grow and innovate. Part of being a successful business is that you do run out of space because more people join you,” says Nick.
One of the challenges was anticipating just how fast the company might grow during the design and build phase. The whole process has taken five years, during which Abcam has grown its global headcount to 1,100.
“We had to try and see the future,” notes Nick. “This has been designed and built for us. We spent a lot of time making sure we got the design absolutely right so that it met our needs immediately and in the next few years of growth.
“We cut the turf on June 1, 2017. From then, it was 18 months to getting the keys, which I think is pretty amazing.”
A pilot group moved in the middle of January, and the board held its first meeting at the new HQ while the hard hats and hi-vis jackets of contractor Kier were still very much in evidence on parts of the site.
Then came the meticulously planned move of people and equipment.
“It was a seamless transition,” says Nick. “You packed up your things in a crate on the Friday and you arrived on the Monday for a tour and induction with our ‘Move Makers’. You took the things from your crate and within minutes you were working.”
The first order, to Australia, was shipped on time by 2pm on the Monday of the move.
It was a tangible sign of the extraordinary efficiency with which Abcam is operating, and which has informed the design of its new HQ.
“The building has been designed around creating collaboration spaces,” says Nick.
This was something that proved tricky when Abcam was spread across three sites on the Science Park, where its corporate functions, including IT and digital technology, were in a separate building to its marketing and projects teams, while the labs were elsewhere.
“Two buildings were next door to one another, while another was a 10-minute walk away. In terms of connectivity and being able to work together, it wasn’t natural,” says Nick.
“By bringing everybody together you are able to connect much more easily. The design is such that we try to keep our labs teams very much connected to our wider business, because that is core to our product type.”
Abcam sells biological research tools – antibodies, proteins, assay kits and reagents – to the life science community. Cambridge is its largest site, but it also has locations in China, Japan and the United States.
While it ships its products around the world, the cluster of biomedical researchers in Cambridge means some can be delivered by bike – just as they were in the company’s formative days by Dr Milner.
This proximity is, of course, valuable to Abcam’s continued drive to innovate.
“In Cambridge, there is a shared interest in collaboration and particularly here on the Biomedical Campus – whether it’s the people at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Papworth Hospital or Cancer Research UK. We already have established relationships with people in these organisations, it just brings us closer together.
“During the official welcome now that everybody is on site, our CEO Alan Hirzel talked about the decision to come here being inspired by conversations with people at the LMB, at Cancer Research UK. That’s the thing about Cambridge that is special anyway: collaboration.
“We’ll have AstraZeneca here soon. Having the research headquarters of one of the world’s largest pharma companies here is really important too.”
Abcam’s location in this hotbed of biomedical research can only aid its development.
“We are seeing double digit revenue growth and therefore we’ve got to recruit people to support that here and around the world,” says Nick. “Obviously, it will help having a great facility when you are hiring.”
While one side of the building has four floors, the side with the labs on has three because of the need for higher ceilings to accommodate ventilation and air systems. A large staircase forms a central feature of the building.
“We were really thoughtful about connecting our lab and office people because they were so fragmented before,” says Nick.
“There is lots of space for people to spend time together. We have over 100 per cent more meeting rooms.”
With a plethora of one-to-one rooms, informal spaces, hotdesk areas and soundproofed meeting rooms that allow easy connection to colleagues around the world via Skype, the building has flexibility built in. Some of these meeting spaces are named around key people in the history of Abcam and Cambridge science – there’s Milner, Cleevely, Milstein, Köhler...
Employees can choose to sit anywhere in their ‘neighbourhood’ each day, and lockers house belongings overnight, enabling a clear-desk policy.
The building is designed to meet global sustainability standards, while looking after the wellbeing of Abcam’s employees.
“Some of our people are extroverts and like big spaces to work in and others are introverts and like individual spaces to work in,” notes Nick. “The building is really designed around our people, collaboration and science on show. We don’t hide our science away. It is part of our business that we want people to see.
“To a degree people think science is mysterious sometimes. I think it’s our role as organisations to make it much more accessible. It’s really important to our lives. The products we produce support life science researchers to discover cures for diseases, which we all benefit from.
“It’s also about busting the myth so that young people get excited about science as well. Getting young people into STEM careers for us is really important in Cambridge.”
As companies like Abcam look to inspire and attract new recruits from Cambridge and beyond, the city’s creaking transport infrastructure is inevitably a concern.
But Nick has been pleased to see the company’s staff already adopting sustainable transport.
“New buildings have more restrictive car parking arrangements, but we knew that,” he says. “We introduced people to the idea of multi-modal travel. I might have driven to the Science Park but now I can drive to the Park & Ride and then walk or cycle.We’ve been really surprised by how quickly our people are travelling sustainably. We have an app for people to book car parking but actually our people aren’t driving. They have adapted more quickly to trying bike, bus, walking. We’ve even had people running.”
As AstraZeneca, Papworth Hospital and others join Cambridge Biomedical Campus, the importance of a new Cambridge South railway station, a metro system or expanded Park & Ride sites will be magnified.
“The guided busway is a real boon and we are very excited by the prospect of Cambridge South railway station. Hopefully, that will come quickly,” says Nick.
Meanwhile, he has his eye on a few finishing touches for a display at Abcam’s sparkling new facility, like the spade that cut the turf, and something special from Dr Milner.
“We must get his ice bucket...” he smiles.
Plug and play approach in laboratories
Joyce Young is vice president of the custom solutions division at Abcam and is loving the new lab spaces.
“It’s absolutely great to have us all in one building,” she says. “We’re able to all interact so beautifully. The lab move has gone so smoothly.
“I look after our custom solutions. This is where we use the might of Abcam to meet the unmet needs of biotech and pharma. We will put in research tools that they need to progress their research.”
Looking through the glass walls into the labs, Abcam’s scientists can be seen purifying products, imaging them and checking them for quality. In the tissue sectioning lab, staff are checking how antibodies pick up target profiles.
The labs are bright, airy and designed to be reconfigured with ease, using a ‘plug and play’ approach.
“The wires come down to mobile benches – we are future-proofed,” says Joyce, walking up to a molecular biology research and development area that is bristling with new technology.
“We have some rather sophisticated kit allowing us to work at scale. We’ve been able to bring in some robotics,” she adds. “We never stop innovating.”
Investing in robotics to improve efficiency
Abcam’s logistics team swings into action at the end of the process of preparing products for shipping to customers.
“People think of logistics and they imagine an Amazon warehouse. For us, it’s part of our scientific process,” says Nick.
“This is a very customer-facing team, ensuring the product reaches our customers quickly, but it is a highly skilled team as well.”
Head of logistics is Andrea Bryan.
“We are really loving the new space,” she says. “It’s so much more open and light. It’s wonderful.”
The logistics team turn items into saleable stock. There is a cleanroom for liquid handling, a large storage facility and a goods out room, with vans waiting to whisk products off to customers or to Stansted Airport for global delivery.
“We will get a vial of bulk liquid – that will be concentrated antibody – and then we will pipette out smaller volumes to saleable units,” says Andrea. “We might get one unit from our Chinese manufacturing facility and deposit that into 100 or 150 units for the customer.”
Investment in robotic liquid handling makes this a highly efficient process.
“It’s an automated pipetting machine,” explains Andrea. “We take the bulks, put them in a rack and a robotic arm will pull over and dispense it across hundreds of units.
“We can put in almost 100 bulks here and process it into almost 2,500 individual units. And it’s completely walkaway… the technician can come in, walk away for four hours and it’s fully dispensed. To finish the process we have an automated labeller. The vials have a barcode on the bottom and the machines will read it.
“It prints the correct label and then wraps it around the tube. We are really moving away from the manual processing.”
Products are either shipped straight out, or head into cold storage.
A series of comPOUND machines from Melbourn-based TTP Labtech enable stock in standardised vials to be put away or picked out in six seconds.
“ComPOUND machines are like a warehouse, but at -20.5C,” says Nick.
Andrea adds: “They hold 100,000 units each. It’s much faster than a human going through the individual racks.
“There is also the walkaway time. Someone can come over, run a pick or put-away list, walk away, do some other activity, come back and pick up all the finished racks.”
More by this authorPaul Brackley