Britain dreams of becoming a ‘scientific superpower’: Creating sustainable tools to feed 8 billion people, ambition to turn small startups into billion USD ‘unicorns’
- Tram Ho
With an idea of protecting the environment, 20-year-old Ross Hendron is determined to save the polluted planet, according to the Financial Times. This former Oxford plant science graduate student started the business, with the ambition of creating something different for the ecosystem.
His dream is painted under the purple light from a suburban laboratory, where genetically modified wheat is being studied and is about to be put to the test. The idea for the Wild Bioscience startup was born from the mathematics and molecular biology disciplines, identifying individual genes in wheat, then triggering a new variety that grows faster and requires less water and nutrients. .
“Farmers are on the front lines of climate change. So we give them the tools to feed the 8 billion people on the planet in the most sustainable way,” said Ross Hendron.
Wild Bioscience, created with £12 million in funding in August 2021, is just one of hundreds of biotech and life science companies that have spawned from a strong academic base. That’s exactly where the British government set its hopes, that one day startups could help the country become a globally recognized “scientific superpower”.
Among the main pillars of Prime Minister Jeremy Hunt’s economic growth policy, this ambition is likened to the great “mission” of the government when it wants to turn Britain from an “academic power” into a “scientific superpower”, according to George Freeman, UK Secretary of Science, Research and Innovation.
However, many questions are being raised around regulatory and financial issues, whether the country can realize such a big ambition.
“The UK is very good at building businesses,” says Alexis Dormandy, a start-up investor and former CEO of Oxford Science Enterprises. “However, the question is being raised, is this country able to build an industry?”
According to Sir John Bell, a professor at the University of Oxford, the UK has not done enough to seize the opportunity. Bell helped develop the AstraZeneca vaccine and authored the 2017 life science industry strategy.
“Most new products are only in the early stages of development. The question is, why haven’t we reached the level of Boston or San Francisco?” Bell said, referring to America’s huge life sciences centers. “If you add up all the companies in Oxford, Cambridge and London, the number is probably close to Boston. However, when it comes to market capitalization, they contribute only a small part.”
The challenge of turning small startups into multi-billion dollar “unicorns” is difficult because it requires long-term capital flows, access to talent, and quality infrastructure, such as labs, training places…
The government’s recent decision to downsize the research and development tax credit program has received mixed reviews, especially from the biotechnology industry – an area that needs a lot of budget to be able to succeed. develop.
Dormandy, who calls the UK a cheap “tech shop” for the world, said right now too many startups fall apart even as they start to have the revenue to prove their potential. .
“Often they will be acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars by companies in the US and Asia. Venture capital firm partners receive the check, and they celebrate together. But that’s exactly when we need to ask the question, how to build multi-billion dollar companies,” London Stock Exchange chief executive Julia Hoggett said. “We have a lot of motivation to start a business, but we don’t run the engine.”
Despite the gloomy “headwinds”, Britain remains steadfast in its ambition to turn it into a “scientific superpower”. At a recent cabinet meeting, ministers were asked to devise strategies for science and innovation, according to the FT. Many also expressed frustration that the government lacks concrete policies and is often better said than done.
Previously, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly emphasized life sciences as the top priority of the post-Brexit economy. According to government data, the industry employs 268,000 people serving over 6,330 businesses and generates £88.9 billion in revenue by 2020. 80% are SMEs, so , an industry-wide expansion strategy is extremely important, even if the major global pharmaceutical companies based in the UK still account for a large proportion in terms of revenue and human resources.
Jonathan Symonds, Chairman of GSK, supported the development of the government’s life sciences strategy last year. The focus is on creating a business environment where companies can access financing for innovation and growth.
Symonds, co-chair, said the UK needed to focus on scaling capital to help startups achieve the growth they need. This is also the way to help them survive and develop in the UK.
Gordon Sanghera, chief executive officer of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a £2 billion London-listed business with DNA sequencing technology, says the pressure to sell on startups is huge.
The sale of the Cambridge-based genetic sequencing company Solexa to the US company Illumina in 2007 for $600 million is a prime example. At the time, it was considered a big win for the industry, but for Sanghera and Clive Brown, the deal was nothing more than a failure.
“A company was offered for £500 million by an American company and everyone celebrated. Why don’t we say ‘no’, go find other top talent and turn it into a £5 billion company,” Sanghera said.
However, Sanghera was forced to admit that it was not easy and likened this to “crossing the desert”. It is easy to raise capital early on, but ensuring smooth operation afterwards is another matter.
According to the FT, most venture capital money in the US, Canada and Australia is willing to bet on startups, but UK investors are not willing to take the risk in the early stages.
“Almost 100% of venture capital comes from the US. That means the big decisions are then led by the Americans,” Symonds said.
According to the FT, the UK government is committed to increasing its R&D budget to £22 billion a year between 2024-2025, with most of it going to the life sciences sector. In 2021, ministers also approved a long-term investment agreement by Mubadala, Abu Dhabi, with a commitment to invest £800 million in the life sciences sector over five years.
“A lot of great companies are here. This field is growing. We should approach it. Our vision is to build an important life sciences campus at Canary Wharf,” said Shobi Khan, CEO of Canary Wharf Group, who pledged to build the largest laboratory in Europe at the site. land east of London.
As for the young Hendron, he wants to be able to stay in the UK and develop a business that can make a big difference. It is known that the startup Wild Bioscience was founded in the Belgian agricultural technology cluster around the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology – the ecosystem that attracts the best people in the world. Hendron decided to stay in the UK, bringing talent from VIB and the US to Wild Bioscience to develop new rice genes.
It is not known if Wild Bioscience will make it through the “desert”, when so many ambitious startups have drowned. Still, for Professor Bell, potential companies like Wild Bioscience can still make a difference.
By: Financial Times
Source : Genk