Translational collaborations are essential to the life science sector, ensuring that the innovative research undertaken in the UK’s world-leading science base can be appropriately taken forward to market and, ultimately, made of use to patients. Following engagement with our membership, the BIA recently submitted a response to the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee’s inquiry into business-university collaboration. 

Our response focused on three key areas of the inquiry with most relevance to BIA members – the UK’s innovation system in relation to business-university collaboration, the Catapult Centre model, and government focus – such as on the ‘eight great technologies’ – to drive inward investment.

The UK innovation system and tech transfer

The strength of the UK’s science base is often commented upon as a core reason for the location of life science research and development activities in the UK. Initiatives such as the Biomedical Catalyst scheme have helped to support collaborations and ensure the smooth transition of promising science from universities to industry. From a UK public policy perspective, sustaining a high quality technology transfer environment is important to ensure that research with its origins in the UK can be effectively translated here in the UK.

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Attendees at a BIA Breakfast in Stevenage discussed tech transfer strengths and weaknesses

Technology transfer is one of the topics currently being evaluated in more detail as part of the BIA’s Life Science 2015-20 manifesto in partnership with Bionow, BioPartner and One Nucleus. Whilst there are examples of excellent technology transfer activity within the sector, early feedback from members suggests that the experience for SMEs can be variable and more could be done to improve the alignment of incentives between SMEs and universities. Difficulties that arise can range right from identifying potential projects for collaboration, through ascertaining what assets are available and who to contact, to the complications which can arise over valuation of the asset.

Role for Catapult Centres in facilitating collaboration

Our response noted that the network of Catapult Centres holds significant potential to facilitate collaboration between businesses and academia. The Cell Therapy Catapult, with which we have worked closely, has proven to be successful, rapidly establishing collaborations with both large and small companies to address the challenges that come with the translation of emerging technology. Our inquiry response emphasises the need to further raise international awareness of the Catapults and, crucially, the importance of appropriate funding to ensure that they can continue to deliver their aims in the future. This sentiment is one that we will echo in our response to the current Hauser review of Catapult Centres. BIA members have asserted that it would be more beneficial to have a smaller number of well-resourced Catapult Centres rather than a larger number of under-funded centres. The recent Budget 2014 announcement of an additional £52 million for the Cell Therapy Catapult to establish a Cell Therapy Manufacturing Centre is certainly a positive indication for the future.

Focused support

The final key area of comment in our response was related to the interest of our members in two of the ‘eight great technologies’, namely regenerative medicine and synthetic biology. The government’s focus on these technologies has been welcome, with political support helping to attract inward investment leveraged by strong academic and industry research alike. Alongside this focus, a supportive tax and investment landscape are critical for the long term future success of innovative bioscience translation. Our 2013 joint report with EY demonstrated that the UK has one of the most competitive tax frameworks for the establishment of an innovative company.

In summary, while difficulties are reported to exist in tech transfer processes at some institutions, there are examples of best practice in the sector from which lessons can be learnt. Together with support and focus from government, and with successful initiatives such as business-led Catapult Centres to bring together industry and academia experts with other stakeholders, the outlook should be positive for business-university collaborations.