How Birmingham Life Sciences Park might look
Healthcare and life sciences are strategic sectors for the fledgling West Midlands Growth Company (WMGC). Its head of business attraction, David Fisken, outlines the new organisation’s model.
The long-established Marketing Birmingham and Business Birmingham have been hugely successful at promoting the city – across the UK and overseas – and at attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), but the onset of devolution has created a new landscape.
Quite how all the new regional roles and responsibilities will work isn’t yet fully clear, but Fisken provides much useful intelligence about the direction of travel. Not least about the new structure of the WMGC – markedly different and more complex than Marketing Birmingham, which it replaces.
“We were established in April 2017, reflecting the new West Midlands Combined Authority and the impact of devolution, and are now wholly owned by the WMCA and its constituent members, the seven local authorities, and also funded directly by six universities: Aston, Birmingham, BCU, Coventry, Warwick and Wolverhampton. We also still have commercial partnerships with private sector companies,” explains Fisken.
“Business Birmingham still exists and has a contract to deliver inward investment for the city council. We still have an European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme too, to support and attract small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) mainly from overseas for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership area, and now have an agreement for inward investment across the West Midlands as well.
“Its a transitional year for that aspect, so we’d expect it to evolve from April onward and we also still have a programme to attract inward investment into Birmingham’s city centre enterprise zone.”
Its an operational brief to make the Brexit negotiations seem simple, but reassuringly Fisken appears to have a secure grasp of the priorities. “We’re working with a business relocation specialist – IBM Plant Location International – to see what our future FDI strategy should be with a West Midland context. The work is done, and we’ll soon be promoting it in detail.
“My role, as head of business attraction, is to work with a team to attract new companies, and to work on expansion projects with ones already here. We’ve established a target sector approach; including advanced engineering, food and drink, tech and digital, advanced engineering including automotive and life sciences.”
Fisken’s “specialist subject” is automotive and advanced engineering, but he speaks with impressive authority and knowledge about the healthcare sector, especially the cluster that has evolved in and around the Edgbaston Medical Quarter (EMQ).
“Our FDI pipeline for life sciences is well established, and although there are many elements to the cluster, the Institute of Translational Medicine, which represents a £24m investment, is absolutely critical, with its strategy of driving innovation from bench to bedside.
“The local eco-system is soundly established and expanding. The BioHub at Birmingham Research Park, for example, focuses on biomedical lab space and providing access for SMEs to the latest equipment so they can grow their presence.
“We have the new medical devices testing centre, a £7m investment, which will really help accelerate medical innovations, again, particularly focused on SMEs, which will be co-located in the ITM, and there’s been continuous investment in infrastructure to support the commercialisation of technologies.
“The University of Birmingham’s (UoB) acquisition of a 10-acre site from the city council, which will attract both start-ups and growing companies to its life sciences park, will enhance the physical facilities we have available.
“Birmingham Health Partners then offers a strategic alliance of academia, hospitals and researchers to promote health and well-being in the city, linked to economic development and the creation of employment and wealth associated with the sector.”
ERDF funding comes forward on a calendar year, so Fisken and his colleagues are now in a planning phase for 2019 and beyond, and simultaneously refining their FDI strategy to fit their new regional remit. “Now we have a relationship with the six universities, there’s a more formal pathway to promote the strengths, research competencies and other strengths of these institutions, as well as key academics and thought leaders.
“They will become central elements of our inward investment strategies, be that working with people overseas or promoting the presence of their research assets within our business development programme.
“For example, because life sciences is one of our key strategic sectors, we worked collaboratively with Calthorpe around their presence at the 2017 Arab Health exhibition and conference which went very well.
“We were also involved in the BioTrinity event in London, which obviously also brought in a large international audience, so there we partnered with the BioHub. That’s a common route we take with regard to helping promote our commercial partners and other stakeholders.”
Its impossible to have a conversation which doesn’t involve the future British economy and its relationship with Europe, particularly given the global and collaborative nature of life sciences and healthcare, but Fisken is relaxed about the challenges ahead.
“Yes, there are uncertainties, for companies making investment decisions and people also want to know what the future regulatory landscape will look like, and there are questions to be answered about European Union (EU) funding that currently comes here for research and innovation.
“However, in terms of opportunity, we’re in a fortunate position. We have a huge talent pool that lends itself very well to life sciences and medical technologies. One of our particular strengths is in medical devices, and the research, design, development and manufacture of such devices.
“The UoB also has the country’s second largest medical school, something like 10,000 students across the region each year, which puts us in a strong position for whatever comes from Brexit.
“We already have key markets for medical technology in such places as the US, Switzerland and potentially Japan, where we may have new opportunities post-Brexit.
“We’re also one of the strongest centre for clinical trials in Europe, and that’s not going to change. The long-term presence of a large ethnic population that is non-transient and stable will still be very attractive to big pharma companies looking to undertake trials.”
There’s much more, of course, to attract investors, drug companies, start-up ventures and established businesses, including the very successful Innovation Birmingham Campus and its Serendip Smart City Incubator and further afield, the Institute of Digital Healthcare at Warwick University.
Fisken also cites the rarely-mentioned role of local companies in highlighting the area’s merits to their peers and contacts. “Binding Site, for instance, is a huge success which began as a spin-out from the UoB’s medical school, and its chief executive, Charles de Rohan, is a great ambassador.
“People like him, and Philip Salt, of Salts Healthcare, have great stories to tell about why they’re here, and are extremely important within our business strategy to attract more companies to this area.”