Dr James Wilkie
Dr James Wilkie, the chief executive of University of Birmingham Enterprise, explains the history of the Biohub, and its impressive achievements, to Ian Halstead.
Everything feels just right as you walk into the BioHub; from the chirpy receptionist and the equally effervescent lab manager and staff, through the shared downstairs space where white-coated scientists focus intently on their projects, and to the upstairs floor where new grow-on space is being created.
With stacks of parking on the doorstep, a train station a short stroll away, and a location in the heart of the Edgbaston Medical Quarter (EMQ), its the life sciences’ equivalent of the city’s famed “Custard Factory” for creative and digital entrepreneurs.
So you’d imagine the case for a purpose-built biomedical laboratory, providing serviced space and support to help nurture life-science start-ups through their crucial early stages, ease their growing pains, and then assist them on the journey from proof of concept to viable investment-ready businesses would make itself.
Its quite a surprise then, to discover from genial chief executive James Wilkie that it took five long years before the £7m funding for the BioHub was approved by the University of Birmingham (UoB), the city council and the European Regional Development Fund .
“People considered the concept to be flawed, and were especially concerned that there’d be too much ‘leakage’ of know-how and data within such a close community,” he recalls. “However, I was convinced that start-up ventures would find the benefits of working within shared space would far far outweigh issues about intellectual property (IP). The chances of two companies working alongside another having the same knowledge that might ‘leak’ are infinitesimal.”
The back story to the BioHub concept is intriguing, not least because of Wilkie’s research into the historic origins of the EMQ.
“We noticed that life sciences’ surveys didn’t identify this cluster, because they typically focus on healthcare, medical devices and big pharma as the core elements, and though we have the global brands here for occasional clinical trials, they don’t have a permanent presence, so the researchers weren’t ‘seeing us’.
“However, if you look at what is here, there are three major hospitals, a new dental hospital, the UoB, its medical school, its school of biosciences and Birmingham Research Park – full of fully-functioning trading enterprises which are all medical in nature.
“Its not an accident. The concept originated in the 1930s when the QE Hospital’s architects built the medical school right next door for “ease of translation of best research practice into patient care” – according to their paperwork. “So, we had this cluster, plus great transport links, great connectivity between the hospitals and the universities, and also residential accommodation mixed with business space, but we didn’t have somewhere for people with great ideas to move into publically available laboratory space.
“One day, I was at Google Campus, and saw how people in the digital sector used shared space and shared facilities and shared overheads, having different ideas and differing approaches, but working cheek-by-jowl and working as a genuine community, to grow and to create new businesses.
“From that came the idea of the BioHub. The ground-floor is shared space, you come in, pay a flat monthly fee, get a bench in a shared laboratory, with a lab manager and various facilities, and a desk in open-plan office space.”
The ground-floor is now full, and the next phase is to create six independent units on the upper floor, where tenants could expand steadily until they employed around 25 staff. As they look to grow further, the new Birmingham life sciences park is some 500 metres away, where there’ll be more substantial space for ventures from the EMQ, as well as companies from the UK and overseas.
“We’ve also got the BizzInn, for firms who don’t need wet-labs, alongside the BioHub. Its helped around 200 entrepreneurs since it opened, and the majority have come from outside the university and outside the cluster, and they in turn have created 60 jobs,” says Wilkie. “Its really pleasing is that roughly two-thirds of these people have, after six months, a relationship with an academic from this university, not through a formal programme, but through natural interaction.
“We provide pro-bono support from the city’s professional community and have a wrap-around programme of business support, so there is a gateway for these entrepreneurs.”
Wilkie joined the UoB in 2007 after 20 years in Europe and the United States delivering research, innovation and corporate venture investment within global plcs, notably Shell, Morgan Crucible and Johnson Matthey, so the recruiters certainly chose well.
UoB Enterprise, is effectively the property management body for the BizzInn, BioHub and the Birmingham Research Park “We are also the agent that goes out and finds the ideas that our academics are thinking of, codifies them into a formal record of invention, and if they’re worth protecting, we’ll do that, usually by patenting, and then we’ll licence that idea to a third-party,” he says. “Traditionally, we’d go to a large multi-national, but increasingly we are asked if we could build a new company, a start-up, around an idea, which is great because we’ve already got the business space and the support services here.
“Typically, out of all UK universities we are third, fourth or fifth on most metrics for inventions by our academics and the number of patents we are granted, and we’re all very proud of that achievement.
“Over the past decade, we’ve attracted around £100m into our spin-outs. We usually do between three and five a year, because they require a lot of intensive support. We’ll also ‘train’ the academics involved in the realities of the commercial world, and fund analysis to identify what the potential market will look like.”
The latest strategic move to give the EMQ mass on a global scale has been to create a consortium of eight Midlands-based technology transfer organisations – Midlands Innovation – to provide a single point of access to investors for IP ideas from any of the eight.
“The ideas, patents and start-up stats from these eight exceed those from Oxford and Cambridge, per £100m of research funding we receive, but we don’t have a single, sizeable investment fund, whereas Oxford’s investment capacity is around £600m.
“Clearly, Oxford has a far better brand than the Midlands, but we are making potential investors aware of the scale of our pipeline, which is a great starting point for a conversation about how we get a large ‘patient capital’ fund into the Midlands.
“We want to attract a fund of at least £300m, which could fit with the government’s new industrial strategy, which highlighted the need for more patient capital, for very early-stage businesses. Its called ‘patient capital’ because it can take 10 years or more for a life sciences business to become viable.
“We had an event at The Shard just before Christmas, when we explained the concept of Midlands Innovation to an audience that included quite a few fund investors, and we’ll be doing other similar events, again in London, and quite likely on both the east and west coasts of the US.”