The Cambridge Cluster is well known as a hub for innovation and life sciences, but what does its future look like?
Having recently stepped down from his role as Chair of the Board of Babraham Research Campus Ltd (formerly Babraham Bioscience Technologies (BBT)), which develops and manages the Babraham Research Campus, life science entrepreneur and investor Dr Andy Richards CBE shares his forward-look on clusters, connections and alternative thinking.
There is a phrase, attributed to Dr Richards which states that a cluster - such as the Cambridge life science cluster - is a low-risk environment for an individual to take a high-risk.
“The individual bit is really important,” he says. “A cluster is about the behaviours of the individuals and how they feel, stepping into the unknown, doing something difficult, trying something that no-one has done before, taking risks with their own career, reputation and finances. Clusters are somewhere where people taking those risks are supported, encouraged, and judged in the right way; a place where barriers are lower.”
But Dr Richards feels that clusters are often misunderstood and are too often defined in terms of ‘things’; universities, buildings and science parks: “Clusters are more about people, culture, and connection. In the Cambridge cluster, people are very generous with their time and we have really encouraged that within the Babraham Research Campus community,” he says.
The Babraham Research Campus is known for its extremely supportive environment. For example, its Accelerate@Babraham programme, now in its fourth year, has seen 15 life science start-ups build their businesses in a supportive, nurturing environment on Campus with funding and mentoring from within the Cambridge ecosystem.
“The Campus is somewhere where you can take those risks. It is an environment that encourages you to be ambitious, and it does that by creating a community of people who are supporting each other. People connect over shared lunches, Campus talks, shared technology, and facilities. Small and large companies are participating with offers of mentoring, those with experience and those with less experience are interacting around the Campus, specialists are chatting to generalists and sharing insights - that’s all part of it. Whenever the Campus does anything, the question should be asked ‘how does this enhance connectivity and concentration?’”.
It is this concentration and connectivity which Dr Richards thinks is the key to improving the cluster’s diversity and adoption of expansive business models and particularly the non-linear business models which propel ventures to scale much sooner: “I think the cluster can and should have more diversity in the future; diversity of business models, of financing, of skills and thinking, and of demographics. Diversity challenges and encourages you and that’s good, it’s central to thinking that helps the health of all.”
Dr Richards says that a concentrated and connected cluster like ours should reassure start-ups that a non-linear approach to business is both possible and one that attracts investors who are interested in pace and agility: “Just look across the companies on Campus that are really succeeding, and ask the question ‘did they do it linearly?’ The answer is no, they have recognised that great innovation is rarely unidirectional and constrained by historic norms. They have moved in an agile way, adding elements that accelerate their scale, capability and progress; and with that they’ve often adapted or even moved away from their original plans.”
He says that accelerator initiatives like Accelerate@Babraham are encouraging ventures to be more ambitious and not to accept the slow, linear narrative: “The process and the Campus environment challenge the applicants to progress at pace with the willingness to pivot in order to compete”.
The issue of pace - being the first and the fastest to both invent and develop and then commercialise - was highlighted in a recent Babraham Research Campus report: “One of the things that I am proudest about is the evidence from the Impact Study which shows that people invent faster, raise money faster, recruit faster, scale faster, on Campus,” says Dr Richards, adding, “In a sense, people compete co-operatively in the cluster and on Campus, enjoying each other’s successes but with an ambition of doing something better.
“Having said that we, in the UK, are still slow in comparison to other clusters around the world and that is then exacerbated by the very linear way that we intellectualise and describe innovation. We have to champion and work hard on the diversity of the financing continuum and the investor ecosystem to increase the speed and non-linear growth of companies. With a non-linear model start-up ventures can benefit from experience and the recycling that is an often under recognised component of success.
Dr Richards considers this recycle an incredibly important concept for the future health of a cluster: “A cluster’s success is directly proportional to the degree of recycle. Recycle of ideas, technologies, people, capital, and learning. And you can see that on Campus through the very deliberate recycling of learnings that we have put together through initiatives like Accelerate@Babraham, mentorships, and facilitating participation of those with experience on boards”.
There has never been a time when people were more aware of health threats as they are today, and the need for healthcare solutions to be delivered rapidly, innovatively and safely. Dr Richards says that we should use this new interest, enthusiasm and knowledge of life sciences gained through the pandemic: “Suddenly, everyone is talking about vaccines, testing and variants. Within a year, 37 million people in the UK and more than 1.5 billion worldwide have been vaccinated against a new virus – that is fast work and shows that it can be done at-scale in a non-linear fashion.”
It also highlights the need for appropriate lab space, something that is currently a constraint within the Cambridge cluster: “Place is important for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and the Babraham Research Campus has been a shining example of success. But we need more lab space; demand is outstripping supply and that could hold us back. Consider what that could look like in our creative non-linear way of thinking; what about city offices that will probably now be used less with the advent of homeworking? What about high street spaces? It is an important, long-term industry and you can see why investors could be interested in that”.
Looking to the future, Dr Richards would like to see the next generation setting a new pace with fresh themes and talent is a key to that:
“We think of ourselves as a young, thrusting sector, but just look around at our own demographics! Whenever we talk about talent and skills in life-sciences we start with the long, slow unidirectional model and focus on the scientists; it’s important but it’s not where the gap is. The gap is in those people that are going to scale businesses rapidly and in a non-linear fashion. They’re people who can sell, be it selling the science, selling the shares, selling to build up the team, or selling the vision; they are often talent from the commercial world and that recycled from areas where things have been done differently; they include data scientists and machine-learning experts – diversity of talent is one of our key industry needs.”
“Diversity of talent is one of our key industry needs.”
“I think we should expect to see some new themes emerging. Obviously, vaccines are a theme at the moment but what’s the next wave? Are they modality based? Is it modalities like RNA? Is it big themes like multi-morbidity? Is it aging? Data is obviously going to be part of those but what sort of data is it? AI in drug discovery, or for early diagnosis or for risk prediction and prevention. Which of these will really move the needle?”.
Taking this one step further, Dr Richards’ vision is one of end-to-end connectivity in the cluster. A place where investors are wandering around, individually and in packs, desperate to get early sight of the next thing and wanting to invest faster, with fear of missing out, and a place where life science companies, scientists and entrepreneurs are interacting with the wider community to see the impact of their work: “The pandemic has linked the companies with the mass population like never before. Those who volunteered to be on the vaccine trials should be proudly saying ‘I played a key part’. And the people who get the vaccine should be able to say ‘I’m really grateful to those people who made this happen’ – the volunteers, the discovery teams, the investors, the scalers and see how the whole system ties together. I would love people to really grasp that connectivity and the passion for innovation, and not just the chattering classes but the people whose lives are changed for the better because of what can be achieved – that would be a true uniting force”.