Guest Column | February 14, 2024

In The UK, Location Is Key To Survival For Life Sciences Startups

By Mairi Dillon, Ecosystem Manager, Kadans

Mairi Dillon Headshot
Mairi Dillon

It’s a tricky time to be a life science start-up in the U.K. With over 60,000 small and medium size enterprises in human, health, and social work, competition is fierce to attract partners and investment. And when half of new businesses fail within the first three years of operation, the stakes are higher than ever.

The work of life science startups is crucial to the strength of the U.K. pharmaceutical sector. They bring the innovation and talent that Big Pharma needs to thrive, but often can’t get their foot in the right doors or find the right premises that help them to grow quickly.

So, what can start-up founders do to engage with Big Pharma and forge connections that truly matter? They need to remember that the benefits of partnering with bigger organizations go both ways, base themselves in locations where ‘chance’ meetings with decision makers are more likely, and use life science clusters to their advantage.

The Two-Way Benefits Of Big Pharma And Start-Up Collaboration

As a start-up, it is hard to spread the word about what you’re doing. You also can assume that you need to have a certain amount of data or results already secured before you can talk to bigger players — but this isn’t necessarily the case. Big Pharma wants the innovation, knowledge, and experimental nature of startups, while startups look to Big Pharma for potential partnerships, licensing deals, investment, and future sales.

In fact, you can’t go out too early to start engaging with other players in the industry. Soon, it will become clear which parts of the industry are receptive to your research, and which are not; learn from that feedback. A few decades ago, Big Pharma was still doing a lot of its own R&D. Fast forward to now, and these organizations are looking to startups to spark early-stage innovation.

Sometimes ‘Spontaneity’ Needs To Be Planned

How do startups and Big Pharma meet? Often it is not as simple as bumping into someone at a conference or dropping them a LinkedIn message. Having visibility in the right places is vital to maximize opportunities for serendipity and intentional connections. Working in the same environment with one or two degrees of separation makes bumping into, or being introduced to, the right people more likely — and more organic. Simply basing yourself in the same cluster or community shows that your interests align and improves the visibility of your work, allowing you to communicate little and often, and make real, meaningful connections.

It is all about networking. This might seem obvious, but to startup founders who come from a science background, it can be a shock to find that the strength of your research is not all you need to find a partner or investor. Working in a life science cluster means that founders can be in the lab for the morning, pop downstairs to a lunch-and-learn with peers, and then talk to prospective collaborators at an evening networking session all in the same complex, all in the same day. Choosing the right space to set up shop is about more than just the facilities. It’s about choosing somewhere that maximizes the opportunities for different individuals at different levels in the business, in different sub-sectors and with different aims to increase knowledge and find business development opportunities.

Take the life sciences ambition for Canary Wharf and the new One North Quay facility as an example. Coming soon to Canary Wharf in 2027, this site will be Europe’s largest and most technologically advanced life sciences building with 23 floors of laboratories, workspaces, and communal areas. The vertical campus will be a hub for the area, building on and connecting with established East London stakeholders such as Genomics England, Barts Health NHS Trust, and Queen Mary University. It follows the opening of the London Innovation Centre, a hyperflexible wet lab and office space, and a new community of startups and scale ups. When companies base themselves in locations like this with the ability to scale, access to like-minded businesses and support from relevant stakeholders, it creates an environment that accelerates growth and builds lasting partnerships.

Using Clusters To Startups’ Advantage

Put simply, early-stage companies don’t know what they don’t know. Being in an environment where they can naturally learn and grow is vital to success, both in collaboration and funding. Founders can be more efficient, wasting less time chasing the wrong leads. Operating within a cluster allows startups to be guided by those in the know and gives time-poor startup founders and Big Pharma executives the platform to make connections.

Look at it like fishing. You want to go where there are good quality fish of all different varieties that are well-fed and nurtured. When you’re in that environment, you are more likely to catch the best fish, or in this case, forge the best relationships. A specialist life science cluster provides this environment, combining world-class research, infrastructure, and investment to accelerate startup growth. It can prove much more difficult to go forward alone, where lab space can be limited and spread out across multiple sites, and there are fewer opportunities to make the business connections that matter. Some organizations are even having to look for lab space three years ahead of time, disrupting the whole innovation cycle.

Startups should look to established real estate providers in life sciences within clusters that will accelerate their growth. Not only do these partners provide the laboratory and office spaces that startups need to develop at pace, but they also host events and help tenants to network with each other — not just in their cluster, but with other sites around the world. This access to global talent, potential partners, and mentors is invaluable for startup founders in their first few years.

Building personal relationships with people you want to partner with, sell to, or get funding from, proves a lot easier over a coffee than a cold pitch or hard sell. These casual conversations are key for startups and their growth hinges on the strength of these connections. Persistence is vital, and when you are based in the same spaces, this not only saves time for busy founders but also improves their chances of success.

About The Author:

Mairi Dillon, ecosystem manager, U.K. and Ireland, Kadans Science Partner, has a wealth of experience in early-stage tech fundraising, project management and outward facing relationship building (public and private sector). She began her career in major government-sponsored infrastructure projects before moving into the innovation and entrepreneurship landscape. As Head of Operations for a venture capital backed bio-tech start-up, she gained broad business experience bringing a product to market and fundraising both in the U.K. and abroad. Through her recent roles within the Catapult Network, Smart Specialisation Hub and Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network, Mairi has built a deep understanding of how to link the research, commercial and investment worlds.