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Lack of lab space is ‘threat to Cambridge’s life sciences boom’

With lab space in Cambridge close to zero, the founder of one of the city’s biggest-ever life sciences success stories has said that the shortage is threatening to slow the Cambridge boom – while Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner has called for “a proper plan” for the globally-recognised science and technology success story.

Dr Mark Kotter, CEO and founder of bit.bio. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Mark Kotter, CEO and founder of bit.bio. Picture: Keith Heppell

bit.bio CEO and founder – and Cambridge Independent ‘CEO of the Year’ – Mark Kotter has said that limited space in the area could see investors looking to other cities rich in life science institutions in Europe or the US, thereby hobbling the progress of one of Brtain’s few world-class industries.

Recent data collected by Bidwells, the property consultancy focused on the Oxbridge knowledge economy, showed lab space availability was close to zero in June in Oxford and Cambridge after demand surged by almost a quarter in the first half of this year. The Bidwells report, published earlier this month, says that companies are being forced to lease offices in other commercial space, before refitting them as laboratories.

Writing in the Financial Times last week, Dr Kotter said that infrastructure “is not being provided” for life science companies to grow.

Delicate web... a hand inserts a molecule into a DNA concept design
Delicate web... a hand inserts a molecule into a DNA concept design

He said: “The UK is extremely good at spinning out small start-ups, but not very good at building big companies. Most leave and are sold, and part of the reason for that is infrastructure that is not being provided for these companies.”

Dr Kotter suggests that in the US, individual states are much better at underwriting risk to developers in order to create a steady flow of lab space – a model that hasn’t translated well into Cambridge.

Sue Foxley, research director at Bidwells, said the shortage is a threat to both Oxford’s and Cambridge’s business model.

She said: “The government has grand ambitions to transform Britain into a scientific superpower, but the Oxford-Cambridge arc is at threat of becoming a victim of its own meteoric rise, with the unicorns of tomorrow increasingly being locked out of mission-critical R&D space.”

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner said: “A report produced by developers is always likely to make the case for more development, but the government’s continuing failure to explain their view on the future of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc is now causing real harm.

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner
Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner

“Life sciences are one of our great success stories and a route to future prosperity: we need a proper plan to make the most of that opportunity while maintaining what is so special and attractive about Cambridge.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has said it is investing in science research and development capacity through its infrastructure fund and is committed to increase total UK R&D investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP — £22bn a year — by 2027. This probably is probably not going to help Cambridge, however – there are life science hubs developing fast in Haverhill, Stevenage and in northern England.

In February the government ditched a strategic plan to develop a ‘British Silicon Valley’ around Oxford and Cambridge because it did not fit with its so-called ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.

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