Scientific innovation is an expensive, resource intensive and long-term pursuit where the chances of landing on a commercially viable solution at the end are far from a given.
This, as I’ve written before, complicates the funding environment and creates demand for novel financing tools as well as the need for patient investors.
But two growth trends in more practical solutions hold exciting potential to drastically reduce the time, labour input and capital outlay required for successful drug and treatment discovery.
The once fully integrated models of drug discovery are being broken down into partial or fully outsourced ones.
Contract Research Organisations (CROs) are not a new phenomenon, but their use has been growing steadily in the UK over the past few years.
In essence, they offer lab services, drug discovery expertise and services and assays across a range of full-service operators to individual niche services.
Using a CRO enables teams to rapidly start and scale the discovery process without needing to own or lease lab space or technicians. It’s worth bearing in mind that 42% of biotech SMEs have less than five employees.
The UK’s Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC), which is based at Alderley Park, already has a Virtual R&D Discovery platform that connects SMEs with one of 22 CRO partners to boost growth.
But CROs also provide services to larger pharma operators too, either due to existing capacity already being used or as part of a desire to adopt leaner operating models.
And CROs offer something more than just outsourced, flexible capacity; many of them are highly innovative life science businesses in their own right that can play an important role in generating new and more predictive research models and tests.
The second and more future-looking trend is the advent of so-called cloud labs. Here, scientists perform their own wet lab experiments but remotely with a team of robots, overseen by some human lab technicians, doing the work – sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Its exponents argue that it offers greater accuracy and repeatability, with robots executing precise lines of code the same way, every time. And they can do so around the clock, boosting productivity.
The choice between options is likely to come down to individual preference and circumstance. CROs, for instance, can also help design studies whereas you need to do that for your robots in cloud labs. And the tech behind cloud labs has a way to go before it can be applied across all CRO areas.
Of course, many CROs are natural vehicles for cloud labs and are looking to invest in these capabilities as the market grows.
It’s largely a Stateside phenomenon for now but the opportunities in the UK, with its world class scientific infrastructure and $1 trillion tech industry that is behind only the US and China, are obvious. The fact that Britain’s strength in these sectors is spread across several cities – not just London but Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Leeds – adds to its potential.
Meanwhile, the UK’s growing and vibrant CRO ecosystem is continuing to expand with many scientists drawn to work at revenue generating businesses that deliver highly innovative work. This is encouraging greater collaboration between individual innovation districts around the country, ensuring that the UK takes advantage of its relatively compact geography to become something that is greater than the sum of its parts.