Given the scale of opportunities to create employment, and drive investment into the local economy, it’s understandable that Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP has made healthcare one of its major strategic targets. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve focused on those economic assets we believe are our most competitive,” says its deputy chairman, Steve Hollis.
“We aren’t short of assets, as a city or a region, but are looking to leverage those which can develop a reputation and presence at global level, and life sciences is certainly one.
“It’s not just about those in the front-line, it’s about real estate, infrastructure, support services and the whole supply chain.
“From a LEP perspective, healthcare is a sector where Greater Birmingham can excel, for the good of the region, the good of the country and most importantly of all, for the good of patients here and overseas.”
Hollis believes the Institute of Translational Medicine will be a global magnet for talent and innovation, making the nine-acre Life Sciences Campus and the BioHub very attractive locations, and is bullish about the healthcare cluster’s prospects. “It’s fantastic to see improvements in the city’s infrastructure, such as New St Station, but we also need big shiny buildings, as well as start-up space, to attract healthcare and biotech companies,” he says. ”I’m sure inward investors will be impressed by what’s happening here, and our vision is that Greater Birmingham really can become the global equivalent of Silicon Valley for healthcare.
“I spent some time working in Bangalore, and it’s remarkable to see how it reinvented itself as an IT destination on a global scale. All the big US companies were suddenly there in droves, and I think it’s perfectly feasible that the same can happen here for healthcare and biotech.”
Intellectual property (IP) rights specialist HGF is aslso feeling upbeat about the sector, and its Birmingham office has developed close links with the region’s biotech and healthcare communities since it opened in early 2013. Office head and partner, Chris Moore – who completed his PhD at the University of Birmingham – says much of the work carried out by himself and his team concerns new medical devices.
“We’re seeing a lot of great ideas and innovations coming forward in medical engineering, from both SMEs and start-ups, although they do face particular challenges because of the budgetary pressures which the NHS is under,” he says. “It’s very difficult to calculate ‘cradle to grave’ costs for a new device or piece of kit, and if the initial cost per unit is higher, inventors do really struggle to persuade NHS procurement teams to consider it.
“It may be that their product will reduce staff costs, provide better test data and generate better patient outcomes, but the initial cost does create a hurdle for the purchasing people, and that’s a challenge which does need to be resolved.”
The HGF team, which is about to expand after a buoyant first two years, is closely involved with BioHub Birmingham and has been supporting the venture. Moore says a series of IP surgeries are now planned at the fast-growing location, as tenants begin to sign up for space, and shares Hollis’s view that both the BioHub and the Life Sciences Campus will swiftly become destinations of choice for growing biotech and healthcare companies.
“The facilities are very impressive, as is the scale of the Edgbaston Medical Quarter (EMQ) itself,” he says. “The appeal of the cluster is very compelling, and I’m sure it will prove attractive to both tenants and investors.”
The quarter sits within the historic 610-hectare estate controlled by Calthorpe Estates, and is already home to some 180 medical organisations, 80 hospitals and specialist care centres, along with 44 GP clinics and routine care facilities and 23 training centres. Calthorpe’s chief executive, Mark Lee, is convinced that the EMQ will continue its impressive growth, as the cluster attracts attention from the life sciences and biotech sectors, and from investors here and overseas.
He was in Dubai at the end of January, promoting the quarter and Calthorpe’s involvement in the sector at Arab Health; the largest healthcare exhibition and medical congress in the Middle East, and the second largest such event in the world. “As you’d expect, everyone was clamouring to get attention for their schemes and proposals, so you had to offer something genuinely special to stand out, but even we were surprised by the level of positive feedback we received,” says Lee.
“Even representatives from some of the big US-based healthcare companies were clearly impressed by the size and scale of the cluster which has evolved here in Birmingham, and also by the level of collaboration between the universities, the hospitals and the local authority.
“The detail we provided about Bio Hub, the Life Sciences Campus and the Institute of Translational Medicine was also well received, because it showed that the EMQ is going to evolve very rapidly into a cluster of genuine international importance.”
Lee points out that delegates at Arab Health were also keen to learn more about the city’s excellent connectivity via Birmingham Airport. “The event was held in Dubai, one of the world’s greatest air hubs, so they know just how important such links are. Many medical clusters are in locations where connectivity is poor, Oxford and Cambridge for example,” he says. “The runway extension means direct services now operate to the Far East and South-East, and of course the airport has a long-term relationship with Emirates, and both those elements will strengthen the EMQ’s appeal to both potential occupiers and overseas investors.”
One of the most high-profile companies based in the EMQ is Binding Site, which began corporate life as a spin-off from Birmingham University’s medical school in the early-80s, and has since become a global business employing some 630 people and with 2014 revenue of more than £70m. It specialises in researching, developing, manufacturing and distributing innovative products. allowing clinicians and laboratory staff to dramatically improve diagnosis and management of patients with immune disorders and some cancers.
CEO Charles de Rohan says the company continues to invest significantly in both the University of Birmingham, and University Hospitals Birmingham, often by funding specialist research posts. “A key area we concentrate on is into blood cancers (multiple myelomas), which are real killers and very difficult to diagnose. Advances made in technology to tackle them also have the potential to be utilised in other areas, including kidney disease and MS,” he says.
“There’s a very good demographic here, and great access to a lot of knowledge and data, so we do a lot of collaborative work in that area of activity.” Roughly two-thirds of Binding Site’s staff are based at the Edgbaston head office, and employee numbers rose by just over 100 during 2014, with more than 90% of the newcomers coming from the West Midlands. However, a similar percentage of its products are sold overseas, allowing the company to acquire two Queen’s Awards for exports, whilst its focus on innovation saw it pick up a third for enterprise.
“All our R&D and manufacturing takes place in the UK and in 2014, we decided to consolidate all our research activities here in Birmingham,” says de Rohan. “We have some very talented people here, and we also like to be in control of as much of our supply chain and production as possible, everything right from the raw materials to packing everything for distribution.”
At the University of Warwick’s Institute of Digital Healthcare (IDH), Professor Theo Arvanitis and his colleagues are working on innovative healthcare solutions, based on advanced digital technology. Warwick Manufacturing Group, the NHS West Midlands and Warwick Medical School came together to form the IDH in 2010, and Theo is professor of e-health innovation and head of research at the Institute. “We are looking at such conditions as obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases, and probably the biggest challenge is to stimulate more collaboration between everyone, from public or private sector, who is involved in healthcare,” says Prof Arvanitis.
“We need to create an integrated ecosystem for healthcare and life sciences, to drive more innovation forward for the benefit of patients, and for the health and wellbeing of the whole population.
“We capture and analyse biomedical data and information about diseases, then try to devise digital technologies for both the provision of care, and for further research and analysis.”
The IDH is based within an engineering department, so another element of its work is translating processes from other sectors to give them healthcare uses. Both clinical evidence and data (clinical and open) is used by Prof Arvanitis and his colleagues to understand the intricate complexities of the diseases they are studying. “The blend of skills and expertise we have here is unusual for the UK,” he says. “We have a truly multi-disciplinary team, including statisticians, clinicians, engineers and clinical researchers.
“We’re supporting and improving specific pathways for patients, but also looking at the overall delivery and quality of the NHS.”
Another innovative approach to spread new technologies through the NHS is the Small Business Research Initiative for Healthcare, better known as SBRI Healthcare. It holds six-monthly ‘competitions’, allowing companies with innovative ideas targeted at a specific healthcare need, to put proposals forward in a bid to win grant support. The programme operates country-wide through a network of representatives, who are based at each region’s Academic Health Science Network offices.
Among the West Midland companies to have won SBRI Healthcare funding are Warwickshire-based Just Checking which makes and installs home monitoring systems (featured on p34-35) and Shropshire-based Azure Indigo, which researches and develops projects to change people’s behaviour.
As SBRI Healthcare director, Karen Livingstone, explains her organisation’s business model,
it’s clear that it’s been tailored to benefit the SMEs which typically apply for support. Not least as each development contract between the successful company and the NHS is fully funded – rather than the more usual ‘match-funding’.
“We pride ourselves on being SME friendly, so we’re light on paper work and bureaucracy and the 100% funding is popular with SME’s.” says Livingstone.
“They can get up to £100,000 at the R&D stage, and up to £1m at the production stage.
“We also pay upfront, so we’d give you finance for the first three months, then
when you’ve supplied all the data to prove you’ve done what you promised, we pay another three.
“We’ve taken a while to evolve our model and reach the current level, but now we’ve supported more than 100 companies.
“It’s a real win-win for everyone. The SMEs get new business, create jobs and become more sustainable, the NHS gets new technology-based solutions and the patients get better outcomes.”