Supporting the UK advanced therapies industry: an interview with Sarah Haywood

In this interview, Sarah Haywood, CEO of MedCity, discusses the developing advanced therapies industry in the UK and what can be done to support up-and-coming therapy developers.

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Poster image: Panel at Advanced Therapies Network Launch, November 2018

Who is MedCity?

MedCity is a cluster organization who’s focus is on supporting growth of the life science sector across London and the greater south-east of England, particularly through joining up excellence and helping to create bridges between industry, academia, the NHS and other parts of the ecosystem, like the third sector and the supply chain.

We were set up as a collaboration between the Mayor of London and the Academic Health Science Centers (AHSCs) in the region, which are themselves partnerships between leading biomedical research-focused universities and the NHS. Our focus is on human health so we work on everything from advanced therapeutics and diagnostic devices to digital and database technology.

The area MedCity covers includes London, Cambridge and Oxford which are already excellent academic centers. What you are hoping to achieve by connecting them together?

We are certainly very, very lucky in this region that we've got fantastic academic institutions that have real depths and breadths of expertise. However, sometimes industry, large and particularly small, can find it very difficult to engage with those institutions. When we compare this geographical area to other ‘life sciences clusters’, such as Boston (MA, USA) or the Bay Area in San Francisco (CA, USA), it is much smaller – internationally, people often don’t realize the density of the region, and if you’re coming to engage with one place, it makes sense to look at the broader offering.

"...although there is a lot of activity in the US, the UK is punching well above our weight..."

Something else which is really important is that lots of smaller companies don’t have the internal resources to engage with the academic base, the NHS or other companies. I sometimes say we operate in a field of unknown unknowns; if you don’t know that something is available, you can’t know to ask for it. The value of not being tied to any specific organization is that we connect up everything that might be useful to a developing company and do it in an impartial way – we are the ‘front door’ to the region.

MedCity has been involved in setting up the Advanced Therapies Network (ATN), which builds on the London Regenerative Medicine Network which ended a few years ago. How has the advanced therapy industry in the UK advanced since then?

I think that a number of things have happened.

Clearly, many more companies are now working in the advanced therapeutic space than were previously and there is greater differentiation. There have also been some very notable successes in terms of UK companies attracting investment, such as Adaptimmune (Abingdon, UK), and we’ve had some great spinoffs from the academic base.

An event we held recently demonstrated there is interest from investors in this space and I think something we have seen particularly in the advanced therapies space is that ideas are matured whilst in the academic space for longer before being spun out. For example, UCL (London, UK) have just spun out Quell Therapeutics in partnership with Syncona (London, UK), who have provided £34 million of investments. Quell is developing engineered regulatory T cell therapies, but Syncona had been working with the academic developers for over a year before the company was created. This is a very different model to how academic-based companies used to be formed.

What will MedCity be doing to support these developing companies and strong ideas?

The Advanced Therapies Network is clearly a strong focus as it enables us to bring together different communities that wouldn't otherwise get the chance to be in the same room. The network is open to academics, people working in the NHS and charities as well as companies working in the advanced therapies space and supply chain vendors, to name a few. It’s important that it is not just a virtual network, as face-to-face conversations are important for shared learning and knowledge exchange.

"...we've got fantastic academic institutions that have real depths and breadths of expertise..."

We will be running events focused around issues which are shared pain points for the different sectors; for example, we have already run events on clinical trial activity and investment, and we have upcoming events on 17th September, focused on reimbursement, and on 8th November, covering the skill requirements of healthcare professionals to deliver these therapies.

We also established an initiative called Collaborate to Innovate a number of years ago, which aims to address the problem of smaller companies connecting with academic expertise. We work with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to arrange collaborations with academic institutions which have relevant expertise. The current program is focused on advanced therapies, drawing on academic knowledge from leading London universities.

You are attending BIO US this week. What is on your to-do list when you are there?

BIO US is a big meeting for the global biopharmaceutical industry with 15,000–18,000 delegates from all over the world. As we’re the front door to the UK’s greater south-east, I’m hoping to meet with companies that are looking to engage with the UK and the region we cover.

"The perception is that the quantum of money that can be raised in the US is significantly more than in the UK..."

I’m also there to talk about the work of the Advanced Therapies Network and London Advanced Therapies, and to make sure that people know about the fantastic expertise that we've got within the universities. Our universities are very, very open to collaboration with industry and we can help to facilitate that connectivity.

With such a steady stream of investment and approvals stories, it can sometimes feel like the US is leading the way in the advanced therapies space. What do you think the UK needs to do to compete?

I think in terms of size, although there is a lot of activity in the US, the UK is punching well above our weight! There are number of initiatives that our government has established, such as the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, which is supporting manufacturing in this area. There has also been a lot of work to support the development and capability of the clinical side, which is important in administering the therapies and supporting patient access. This underlines how important it is to make sure that companies know what resources are available to them in the UK.

"...many more companies are now working in the advanced therapeutic space than were previously and there is greater differentiation..."

Of course, there are always some challenges in the UK; although I have talked about the positive stories of investment, I think it is interesting that some of our leading companies, such as Adaptimmune, did go to the US to do the initial public offering, rather than doing it in the UK. The perception is that the quantum of money that can be raised in the US is significantly more than in the UK, so there’s certainly more we can do to support investment and fundraising.

There are also some uncertainties from a regulatory perspective, in terms of our relationship with the rest of Europe, but there is a good, strong focus on advanced therapies from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Our capability in comparison to the rest of Europe is very strong, so I am sure that people will still want to come and work with us.

Sarah Haywood presented on the Advanced Therapies Network at BIO US 2019.

To join the Advanced Therapies Network, please visit

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