I visit a huge bet on backing young businesses – by putting together a collection of them to work beside one another, and in this case beside a big pharma. The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst will provide follow-on accommodation for a number of young businesses – which are in the process of being carefully selected; but without any of the systematic review points enshrined in the accelerator model and adopted by its immediate neighbour, GSK.
The history of bioscience incubators is very short: the first – at Manchester University – opened only in 1999, and it has since spawned a number of outstanding bioscience businesses. Yet now there are 26 members of the UK Bioincubator Forum. The latest, opened in February this year, consists of a pair of huge, glistening complexes – an incubator and an accelerator – constructed within the curtilege of GlaxoSmithKline’s complex at Stevenage, at a cost of £38mn. The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst is a not-for-profit partnership between the Wellcome Foundation, the Technology Strategy Board and GlaxoSmithKline. It is an attempt, within the restless continuum of the development of bioscience incubators, to see whether successful businesses can eventuate from such facilities when they are ‘plonked down beside a major pharma’, instead of sitting in a science park. And there is plenty more space there if this experiment shows signs of working.
The buildings are very impressive, giving the appearance of ultra-modern versions of GSK’s own premises next door, but at present they have the slightly spooky feel of an empty millionaire’s house! One tenant moved in as the premises were opened in February; an entrepreneurial Technical Services provider was due to take up residence in July; and two lab-based businesses were about to join. The target is for 40% occupancy by April 2013. The incubator contains 24 labs – space for 125 people, making it likely to accommodate between a dozen and two dozen businesses; and the accelerator is designed to take three businesses, each of 30-50 people, one on each floor.
The selection process entails trawls through universities, existing early-businesses and of course GlaxoSmithKline next door, looking for small businesses (or people) with potential, especially if they have a plausible drug candidate or a promising technology platform. The process can take up to 12 months to complete (longer than most incubators) because candidates need to have VC finance in place of up to £100k in order to fund their residency. As such these premises bear little relationship to seed-funded incubators or sponsor-funded accelerators that have started up in other fields: they are more like follow-on accommodation.
The philosophy behind the project is that the magic pills are:
· what the tenants draw from contact with one another
· what the large cadre of mentors, made up mainly of people who have ‘done it before’, will contribute, and
· the interactions that can be generated between tenants and people in GSK’s labs next door.
Martino Picardo who clearly brings enormous experience to the job, is CEO of the ‘Catalyst’, and sees his role as a self-effacing facilitator and speed-dater, in charge of a collection of Dodgem Cars! He sees it as about getting the right mix and then generating the right culture – of willingness to venture, with input from people who have done it before; and his job as providing an environment that will ‘get people to interact on their own terms’ (wine society meetings as well as science seminars). He keeps his eye on similar models including those of Unilever, Philips and Nokia.
The hope is that facilities like these (and the Wellcome Foundation, the TSB and Imperial College are building another at King’s Cross in London) will generate new businesses that will re-invigorate an industry in which many well-rehearsed pressures are forcing big pharma to cut back and close R&D facilities, but where technologies are developing to meet increasing demand for an ageing population.