Last week the Labour Party launched its Life Sciences Plan which has been warmly welcomed across the board by industry, with positive responses from ABPI, Life Arc and others. With a focus on implementation over revolution of the existing Life Sciences Vision, Labour appear to be sending the message that they understand that the sector wants certainty and practicalities over new grand strategies.
Lots will be written over the soundness of this as political strategy and what it means for polling day, though I doubt the next election will be won or lost on life sciences sector policies. However, regardless of the colour of the next government, elements of this plan are likely to be adopted into mainstream policy and it’s interesting to dissect them and what they mean for the North. Bear in mind that at this stage we’ve only seen the outline plan of actions and no detail.
I’m going to start with what’s not in it – MedTech.
The focus is on pharmaceuticals. This is understandable: the Biopharma sector accounts for about 70% of UK life science turnover and exports over £25 billion. Comparatively, MedTech only accounts for £5 billion of exports. Biopharma is a large and vitally important part of the UK economy.
However, MedTech – which includes everything from single use consumables to MRI machines by way of orthopaedic implants, In Vitro Diagnostics and digital health tools and AI – accounts for about 65% of all life sciences employment, and those employees are mostly (85%) in SMEs.
When it comes to growth and high-skilled job creation, those SMEs are a prime opportunity. Additionally, while Biopharma is concentrated in the Cambridge – Oxford – London golden triangle, having 57% of the total Biopharma employment, the MedTech sector is much more geographically disperse, with the South East, Yorkshire and Humber, the North West and the East of England being the regions with most employment.
Solely focussing on Biopharma risks further entrenching regional divides by proxy and misses an opportunity to put the UK at the forefront of the use of digital health and AI. in the design, manufacture and use of medical technologies. Additionally, MedTech is also all the stuff you need to run a modern and efficient health system, and care for an expanding ageing population. Drugs are vital to treat people, but a lot of healthcare system efficiency gains are to be found in better diagnostics, better workforce and workflow management, virtual wards, digital health technologies to reduce inpatient visits and so on. MedTech also counts for about 10% of the NHS’s carbon footprint, and as we push for a Net Zero health service we need to be mindful that without support, the SMEs that supply the NHS may struggle to implement the changes needed to meet new environmental regulations.
So, what is in the plan?
A lot to be encouraged by. At the heart of this proposed plan, you can see that Wes Streeting and Peter Kyle understand that the NHS and its research and innovation infrastructure is an asset in driving innovation and creating economic growth, as much as it is a place to go when you’re sick. They propose adding accountability to the Department of Health and Social Care for life sciences innovation, strengthening OLS and providing a more stable funding environment for UKRI and NIHR, as well as the commitment to develop a “comprehensive innovation and adoption strategy in England”. All this shows commitment to achieving ‘Life Sciences Superpower’ status and are mechanisms for Government to shore up its ability to implement change.
Sticking with the theme of understanding how to drive innovative growth, some other elements of this plan that initially might look out of place – pensions rules and university spin-outs – make sense to me from a perspective of how to develop successful clusters.
Access to capital is vital for an innovation cluster to grow, and as we reported in our Northern Life Sciences Supercluster: The Economic Potential of a Systemwide Approach report, something that the North is at a disadvantage by compared to the greater South East, even before economic headwinds made private capital less available in 22/23. It’s good to see a recognition here that increasing access to finance is a key part of the puzzle.
Another piece is a thriving entrepreneurial base, and I hope this is the theory behind encouraging more spin-outs from universities. One reason clusters work is that you create an environment in which people can conduct high-risk work (your clinical trial might fail) in a low-risk way (there are lots of other start-ups to go to, or plenty of capital available for you to try again). I think it’s fair to say this isn’t our specialism in the UK, and I’d love to see some policies like introducing entrepreneurial post-doc funding and creating opportunities for graduates and PhDs to start or work in spin-outs without needing to be independently wealthy enough to cover their living costs.
Lastly, I want to pick up on a risk and two opportunities for the North.
Risk wise, for the North at least, it’s hard to see the proposed planning reform to “create new National Development Management Policies tilting the scales in favour of new lab space in our planning system for England” as anything other than a response to the fact that the greater South East is running out of lab space and struggling to develop new sites. Anecdotally at least, this situation seemed to be opening eyes to the opportunities in the North and elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure that overall it’s in the best interest of the UK to open more lab space in the South East and perhaps these reforms would benefit the North too, planning reform is not my area, but something to consider.
The two areas of opportunity are in data and clinical trials. The North has consistently been a leader in these areas. On data we have been leading the way on how to develop secure data environments while maintaining trust; such as Liverpool Combined Intelligence for Population Health Action, and the new digital health hubs among others.
On a clinical trials perspective, Manchester, Newcastle and others have consistently managed to meet trials targets and continue to maintain excellent delivery the UK is known for. We also have a diverse population, great community engagement but also, sadly, a greater healthcare burden than the rest of England. This makes the North an ideal place to focus clinical trial delivery in order to bring new treatments to where they are most needed, and help kickstart a northern productivity recovery.