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Fit for the future

PUBLISHED: 12:24 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:24 03 March 2015

Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst

Archant

As schools, colleges and businesses across the county mark British Science Week this month, we report on the scientific success stories on our doorstep

Herts' skills in precision engineering are leading the fieldHerts' skills in precision engineering are leading the field

Pharma’, ‘medtech’ and ‘open innovation’ are just some of the buzzwords in the science industry – and nowhere more so than in Hertfordshire. No longer perceived as a niche sector, science is now one of the biggest growth areas for UK plc, as evidenced in the Chancellor’s £5.9bn investment in science announced in the Autumn Statement.

Hertfordshire is geographically placed to take full advantage of this, thanks to its location at the core of UK science. The county sits at the heart of the nation’s ‘golden research triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and London, making it uniquely positioned for knowledge-based growth.

Industry leaders in Herts include:

• GlaxoSmithKline, whose main clinical research facility in Stevenage has been chosen to consolidate its research and development.

Rosetta spacecraftRosetta spacecraft

• Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, the UK’s first open-innovation bioscience campus, soon to be home to the £55m Cell Therapy Catapult Manufacturing Centre which will help to lead the global fight against life-threatening diseases.

• Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, a world leader in research into agriculture and crops.

• Imagination Technologies in Watford, best known for the mobile graphics processors used in Apple’s iPhone.

• Airbus Defence and Space, whose recent missions have put Stevenage ‘Space City’ on the map.

• Japanese pharma giant Eisai’s new packaging facility brings investment in its Hatfield site to more than £150m, the single largest pharma investment by a Japanese firm in the UK to date.

‘An incredible amount of world-beating innovation takes place here, from the manipulation of cells to the creation of new drugs,’ says Paul Witcombe, enterprise and innovation manager at the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, which has identified maintaining Hertfordshire’s global excellence in science and technology as key to future economic growth in the county. He adds, ‘We have a rich mix of assets that encourage innovation.

‘For instance, Hertfordshire is one of the biggest contributors to pharma-ceutical manufacturing. More employees in the world of biopharma are working here than anywhere else in the UK, and twice as many as in Oxford and Cambridge combined.’

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Exploring alien worlds

In recent months, the county has barely been out of the headlines thanks to its contribution not just to scientific research in the UK but far beyond. Witness the global excitement around the Stevenage-made Rosetta probe and its successful mission to land on a comet.

The team of scientists and engineers who designed and built large parts of the craft are based at Airbus Defence and Space on Gunnels Wood Road. Tucked away on another part of this site, a Rover vehicle (right) is being put through its paces in a simulated Martian landscape as it is prepared to lead the European Space Agency’s search for life on Mars project in 2018.

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Beating disease

Just down the road, the GlaxoSmithKline site is witness to a similar air of excitement after Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst heard it had bid successfully for UK firm Cell Therapy Catapult’s state-of-the-art £55m cell therapy manufacturing centre. Stem cell therapy is at the cutting edge of medical research, as it uses a patient’s own cells in the fight against life-threatening diseases, including cancer. The centre is due to open on the Stevenage Bioscience Campus in 2017, creating up to 150 jobs, and generating around £1.2bn in revenue by 2020 – giving a further boost to the life sciences and biotech industry in the county.

Hertfordshire LEP, which is committed to providing £3m to the further development of the Catalyst site, played a pivotal role in helping to secure this investment with infrastructure support to realise the project. Martino Picardo, Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst CEO explained, ‘We have been working extremely well with the LEP executive on our overall masterplan for the Stevenage site, which is now well on the way to becoming a world-class campus for open innovation and the development of new therapies.’

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Incubating innovation

The Catalyst’s ‘Incubator’ is also driving forward scientific research and manufacture. One of 24 in the UK, it provides start-up biotech and life science companies, as well as university researchers from Cambridge and UCL, access to pre-fitted lab space and business support to help bring research and development to the market. It also fosters a unique environment where big pharma, such as GSK (which funds the Incubator alongside the Wellcome Trust and government) and small start-ups and academics can collaborate. Pharma-ceutical company Lilly has recently joined this thriving community.

The campus is a hive of activity with companies such as NeRRe Therapeutics, which is leading research into lessening the intense itching experienced by some cancer patients as a side effect of treatment. Already nearing capacity ahead of schedule, the site’s ‘Accelerator’ development area provides much-needed ‘growing on’ space for the Incubator start-ups. One of its newest tenants will be MRC Technology, a life sciences medical research charity, which is due to transfer its lab-based drug discovery activities from Mill Hill to Stevenage later this year.

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The future of healthcare

But perhaps the most exciting development in Herts is determining the future of healthcare. There are signs that scientific endeavour is moving focus from expensive drug research to monitoring healthcare needs; in other words, from trying to heal the sick to identifying those at risk of becoming ill. To do this, the biotech industry is looking at how ‘big data’ and nanotechnology is personalising healthcare.

In the second MedTech Conference organised by Hertfordshire LEP and sponsored by the University of Hertfordshire last year, Google showcased some of the latest trends in wearable healthcare technology. And the Technology Partnership, based in Melbourn near Royston, demonstrated the innovative products it is bringing to market. Already, smart watches and wristbands can monitor sleeping patterns, heart rate, calorie consumption and more, and the medtech trend is set to continue with wider implications for monitoring the nation’s health.

John Gourd, Hertfordshire LEP chairman, says, ‘Part of our remit is to support the development of the life sciences cluster in and around Hertfordshire, creating an open innovation climate in which companies can maximise their potential and develop networks which bring diverse businesses together in order to stimulate commercial opportunities which would otherwise not occur.’

Hertfordshire, with Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst’s mission to drive forward early-stage biotech, pharma and medtech developments together with local expert knowledge, is already ahead of the curve and looking to engage a new generation of scientists. Martino Picardo states, ‘It’s really important that the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst campus engages with our local schools and ensures that there is an awareness of the opportunities on their doorstep for careers in life sciences – that is our future.’

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