The turmoil of Brexit will not derail thriving UK life sciences which are predicted to deliver economic growth into the next decade.
The powerhouse of innovation will continue to forge ahead in the quest to tackle the daunting health challenges facing the NHS and society from an aging population with increasing co-morbidities.
The sector pumps £60 billion into the UK economy and supports 220,000 jobs, according to Government figures, but the big question has been: “What will Brexit mean for UK Life Sciences?”.
“The vote to leave Europe will not stifle life sciences,” says Sarah Haywood, chief executive officer of the influential MedCity, the political-private-academic collaboration that promotes the sector in London and the South-East. “There are questions and challenges but there is great positivity about the future.”
The UK has been a focal point for Research and Development (R&D) across the spectrum with more than 300 companies in London and the South East, ranging from start-ups to multinationals such as GSK and AstraZeneca, employing 30,000 people.
In an exclusive interview with Hot Topics, Haywood adds: “The signals are good and, although we must not be complacent, there has been a lot of engagement between the Department of Health and the Department for Business around UK life sciences post-Brexit. The sector has also made itself heard very loudly with Government.
“There is a great deal of interest in what the industrial strategy for the country will be post-Brexit and the view is that life science needs to be an important part of that, reflecting its importance to the economy.”
She adds that there are still challenges about the status of EU workers and funding for academic institutions but Brexit also opens up opportunities to streamline and improve regulations around clinical trials and the adoption of new therapies and technologies.
“It is hugely important that we maintain our dynamic progress because life sciences are a significant part of the UK economy, generating new products and services to cope with the challenges that face us as a society,” she adds.
Haywood also believes the sector has an important role to play by creating positive ‘mood music’ as the nation comes to terms with its new trading relationship with Europe following the Brexit vote, saying: “There is an enormous amount of investment in R&D and innovation in UK life sciences which is absolutely critical in driving the economy forward.
“There are questions and a hunger for reassurances from the Government that the sector remains a very important part of the industrial strategy but the signs are certainly positive.”
The departure of George Freeman from his role as Life Sciences Minister – where he was widely applauded for his understanding and constructive approach – has also caused some alarm but Haywood feels the re-shuffle adds extra strength because Lord Prior and Nicola Blackwood, who share his former brief, are backed up by Jo Johnson, in the Department for Business, and Greg Hands, at the Department for International Trade, in the push for scientific business.
“We now have four Ministers focused on it and George Freeman is still an influential advocate,” she adds.
Key European funds, for academic institutions and health initiatives, are still backing UK enterprises with new schemes started since the Brexit vote on June 23 and, although there is concern about future access, many are open to participants outside the EU, she adds.
A degree of uncertainty is natural as Britain negotiates its future but Haywood, who fronts a collaboration between the Mayor of London and the capital’s three Academic Health Science Centers, believes the mission to create new products and services must transcend any legislative turmoil.
She believes the wealth of scientific innovation stemming from academic institutions, health tech clusters, start-ups and established companies will consolidate the UK as a healthcare hub and benefit patients.
“One of the most important challenges we face as a society is how the supply of healthcare can be transformed so it can be delivered in an effective way to meet a changing demand,” she adds.
“It impacts a whole range of activities from new drugs, which can involve cell manipulation as well as standard drug development, and new diagnostics that really work alongside genetic information to understand what drugs are going to work for patients.
“Digital technology, which supports the management of patients at home or remotely so they don’t need to come into hospitals, outpatients or A&E units, offers enormous opportunities but one of the greatest challenges is getting the products to market where they can help deal with an aging population suffering from comorbidities.”
The best way for innovative technology companies to navigate the NHS
“MedCity helps companies in a number of ways and one of them is how to navigate the NHS,” says Haywood. “We often think of the NHS as one entity but in reality, it is lots and lots of different business units making their own decisions about procurement and how they deliver care. We provide signposting and explain how it works.”
Vital NHS insight is available through the Digital Health London scheme which is on hand to promote the ‘development, commercialization and adoption of digital health technologies in health and social care to improve health outcomes.”
Help is also on hand to ensure new technologies reach safety and efficacy standards and bring relevant advances for patients.
“We offer a full range of practical assistance,” adds Haywood. “It is important to understand the demand for your product. It is critical to understand the market from the start, particularly if you are developing digital products.
“It is also crucial to understand what patients and clinicians are looking for and not to develop something that is a solution in search of a problem.
“There is a whole set of challenges around the transformation of healthcare and how it is delivered which are ripe for technology to disrupt and change.
“Investing in understanding demand and what the market looks like is critical and that is where we can offer key guidance.
“It is important for entrepreneurs and startups to think clearly about their business model; their cost recovery and profit, and if they are targeting consumers directly or through clinicians.
“It is also really important to think about telling the story about what your company is trying to do.”
MedCity guides companies to hone investors pitches with clear, direct messaging. “You have to make an impact early on and give a clear picture of how your product can change healthcare and what it will add,” she says.
“The economic arguments around cost and benefits are really important so you need to articulate how they are calculated and back that up with evidence.”
MedCity – founded in 2014 with the capital’s three Academic Health Science Centers – Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre, King’s Health Partners, and UCL Partners – has already helped scores of companies deliver growth, enhanced profit and real benefits for patients and the healthcare system.
“The overall message is that UK life sciences are a vibrant part of the economy and will not be stifled by Brexit,” says Haywood. “There is also a huge amount of practical help available – from us and other organizations across the UK – for anyone starting up a business or pushing an enterprise onto the next level.
“The UK is very much open for life sciences business.”
Click here to watch the interview with Medcity UK CEO, Sarah Haywood in its entirety.