‘What we will do could stop the NHS collapsing’ - a look inside the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

The incubator building at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

The incubator building at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst - Credit: Archant

It looks at first glance like a space-age film set, the sort of high-tech set-up where megaminds are harnessed to making a supervillain’s dreams of world domination come a little closer to reality.

Tenant labs at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

Tenant labs at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst - Credit: Archant

But it’s not tucked away in a shadowy corner of Silicon Valley or in some hard to reach region of remote Russia or China – it’s just a stone’s throw from the A1(M) and Stevenage Leisure Park.

And what it’s really about is improving lives here and now.

The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst campus in Gunnels Wood Road – on the same site as pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – opened in 2012, with the number of companies based there on the increase ever since.

With laboratories and offices for hire, the campus offers access to equipment and facilities that would otherwise be beyond the reach of small or medium-sized firms.

Tenant labs at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

Tenant labs at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst - Credit: Archant


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The venture – involving the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, GlaxoSmithKline, the Wellcome Trust and Innovate UK – and encourages open innovation in order to accelerate the discovery of cutting-edge healthcare solutions.

Miranda Knaggs, the catalyst’s sales, marketing and events manager, said: “It’s taken too long and too much money to develop drugs for certain things and big pharmaceutical companies have realised they are not going to deliver the answers by themselves.

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“They are starting to collaborate more with other pharmaceutical companies and small bio techs to give them new ideas.

“We hire out labs or offices to companies. They might only have an A4 sheet of paper with an idea on it and we help to see if it can be transformed into a company. Others just need their own lab, or somewhere to meet clients.”

Tenant labs at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

Tenant labs at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst - Credit: Archant

At the moment there are no fewer than 47 companies based at the catalyst, with scientists working towards improving healthcare in fields such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and the respiratory system, as well as working on advances in stem cell research.

“It’s all about improving people’s lives,” Miranda said.

“Glaxo is supporting these companies because it wants to raise the quality of science in the UK.

“And in turn we have access to Glaxo’s technology and business expertise.

“Open innovation promotes a ‘fail fast’ environment. Funding is tight, so it stops things getting funding for years even though they will never go anywhere.”

In December, business developer Cell Therapy Catapult revealed plans to build a £55 million state-of-the-art cell therapy centre on the site.

The plant is expected to create up to 150 jobs and generate £1.2 billion of revenue by 2020 – 80 per cent via export.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, the then business secretary Vince Cable said the therapy was “at the very cutting edge of medical research, using our own cells in the fight against life-threatening diseases including cancer.”

The centre is expected to open in 2017 and will be used for the manufacture of late phase clinical trials and for the commercial supply of advanced therapeutic medicinal products, including cell and gene therapies.

The catalyst is also busily raising the money for a further two buildings on the site, after a £3m cash injection from the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership for a feasability study.

Miranda said: “We could end up with six or seven buildings on that land and 1,500 jobs in the next few years.

“Hopefully it will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the town. The scientists need admin assistants, lawyers and accountants, for instance.”

The catalyst is looking at bringing IT specialists and engineers onto the site to facilitate a shift in the way we take medicines in the future.

Miranda added: “How can we improve on using medicines? Rather than having to take tablets every day, we could be able to take one a month that has a release system.

“We are also seeing people looking more and more on the internet and self-diagnosing themselves. Everything we do now is through our phones, so your phone could become your health device.

“People will be more demanding for information – hopefully what we do will stop the NHS collapsing.

“It’s all about being better, faster and cheaper, and we are playing our part in Stevenage.”

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