The concept of ‘plug and play’ space is catching on fast in the US biotech sector, and it’s easy to see why it’s being hailed as the perfect way to drive innovations into the global healthcare sector.
Offering start-up ventures access to affordable wet-lab space and advanced research equipment, alongside business support services, gives biotech entrepreneurs everything they need to transform their bright ideas into solid commercial reality.
So far though, the approach has been slow to catch on this side of the Atlantic, giving Birmingham Research Park a great chance to steal a competitive advantage with its Biomedical Innovation Hub - better known as The BioHub.
The park’s CEO, James Wilkie, says the £7 million project represents the first purpose-built ‘plug and play’ incubator scheme in the UK, which dovetails perfectly into his long-term strategic vision for the location.
“I came here in 2007, began looking at the tenant base, and was intrigued to discover that although they were all in the medical sector in one form or another, there were no early-stage entrepreneurs,” he recalls.
“They were all perfectly profitable companies, but very much in the later growth phase. If you looked around the area, the scale of the medical cluster was also very impressive, but it was clear that we needed to do something to attract start-up ventures, and providing shared space and facilities seemed the logical route.
“It was commonplace to offer such space in the digital sector, but no-one had done it for life sciences, so we drew up a business case for what has now become The BioHub, and put that vision to the city council and the university - who had set up the park as a joint venture back in 1986.
”Everyone really bought into the concept, especially Sir Albert Bore, who at the time chaired the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust and is now, of course, leader of the city council.
“We managed to win support from the council, the university and the European Regional Development Fund, and pulled together the £7 million we calculated was needed to design, develop and then fit-out The BioHub.”
The facilities are undeniably impressive, even on first glance. There’s 4,500 sq ft of biomedical laboratory space to be shared by tenants, featuring two specialist microbiology rooms, a microscopy lab, specialist cleaning and sterilisation equipment, a cryogenic suite to house liquid nitrogen, and the capability to freeze items at -150°C.
“Samples of human tissue often need to be kept for years, so it’s important to provide access to cryogenic storage and everything has back-up facilities, in the unlikely event of a power cut or other problem,”says Wilkie.
“You always hear people say that their centre is the best, but The BioHub really is a landmark development for this country. Even if you looked across the whole of the United States, you’d only discover five or six places which can provide anywhere near this level of facilities and support.
“We’ve already started talking to a couple of the US schemes, and we’re hoping to set up a reciprocal relationship with at least one during 2015, so researchers and entrepreneurs from here can interact with their opposite numbers from there which will benefit everyone.”
More usual facilities are on offer too; shared state-of-the-art bench space, office desks and hi-speed broadband - as would be expected - along with the business advice and guidance which will be critical as ideas move from the innovation and research phases to become market-ready commercial products.
“We’ve got a great deal of pro-bono support from the city’s professional services sector, as part of their corporate social responsibility strategies, which is a central element of what we’re all trying to do here,” says Wilkie.
“When you’re really focused on turning an idea into something tangible, and also at the very early stage of setting up and running a business, it can be hard to step back and look at everything, so having experienced professionals to come in and mentor you can make all the difference.”
Even before its opening in December 2014, The BioHub team were already in advanced talks with potential tenants, and two have since signed up for space, both with a pleasingly international flavour, although polar opposites in terms of size and scale.
Lab equipment specialist Sartorius-Stedim is a French-headquartered quoted plc, employing some 3,300 people worldwide, and with annual revenue of around €600m NanoTi is a Budapest-based start-up, specialising in treatments to prevent bacteria developing following the fitting of titanium dental or orthopaedic implants.
“We’re expecting interest from a variety of sources,” admits Wilkie. “I’m sure some consultants from University Hospital Birmingham will be interested, not least because we’re almost on their doorstep, and from other hospitals too.
“I think people who just have ideas about biotech will come to see the facilities, and discover what The BioHub could do for them. In some cases, like Sartorius-Stedim, I’d expect space to be taken by large European players who want a presence here, because they recognise what the city’s medical cluster has to offer.
“There will also be a range of sizes, from start-ups employing just one or two people, to more mature businesses with workforces of up to 20. We designed the space to be as flexible as possible, and as The BioHub message is being so well received, I’d like us to be at 50% occupancy by early 2016.
“Looking a little further ahead, I’d like the centre to be full in two to three years, which is of course what we need to ensure it’s a commercially viable venture.”
The BioHub is also at the heart of the Edgbaston Medical Quarter, offering tenants easy access to a wider community of healthcare professionals; including clinical academics at the University of Birmingham, consultants and researchers at the QE hospital, and an array of companies in the life sciences sector.
“We are very much trying to create a community feel; at The BioHub, elsewhere on the park and throughout the healthcare cluster,” says Wilkie.
“When you’re at the start-up stage and new to the concept of entrepreneurship, as opposed to research in a pure academic setting, you need support, but you also need on occasions to simply talk to other people about something different.
“Those conversations may simply offer a brief distraction from the intensity of your work, but they might also stimulate you to look at something in a different way, so creating a community here is just as important as building the right kind of space and installing the right kind of equipment.”