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Life sciences firms experiment with new location choices

Life sciences firms are rethinking where they want to be based and who their neighbours are in a bid to boost innovation and stay competitive.

September 19, 2019

For many of today’s life sciences firms, location is a critical part of driving innovation.


Increasingly, bigger life sciences companies are opting for urban spaces that are a far cry from the out-of-town science parks of previous decades to attract the brightest minds and position themselves close to the biotech start-ups disrupting the industry.

“Developing new drugs is a long and expensive process and many firms now recognise that being close to their peers and to start-ups brings many benefits which far outweigh the downsides,” says Dr Glenn Crocker, JLL UK, head of life sciences.

Some firms are moving beyond sharing a postcode to taking space in the same building, which houses academics and SMEs alongside a large pharmaceutical company to create thriving communities.

“Big pharmaceutical companies realise that working alongside academics and start-ups boosts productivity because they can work in an agile way – sharing ideas, making use of the latest technological innovations and sometimes sharing resources or jointly applying for grants,” says Crocker. “Often, these co-working clusters are forming in urban locations.”

Imperial College’s I-Hub, in White City, is testament to this, providing a mix of fully-fitted incubator units, scale-up space and floors for larger companies. This has placed it at the heart of a burgeoning innovation centre that is strengthened by White City Place, the former BBC building opposite, that also includes office space for lab and R&D and is already home to new businesses including GammaDelta Therapeutics.

It’s this diversity that stokes demand for space. “The location becomes a cluster for innovation and is more enticing for a range of occupiers as critical mass develops,” says Chris Walters, JLL UK, director life science investment & development. “This presents an extremely attractive proposition for those investors and developers who understand the sector and its potential.”

Rethinking the campus

Sites previously occupied by a single pharmaceutical company are equally undergoing a complete refresh to become communities of fast-growing start-ups.

Pioneered by the likes of BioCity in Nottingham more than 15 years ago, similar life science hubs have sprung up across the country, from the former Pfizer site in Sandwich, Kent, to AstraZeneca’s former facility at Alderley Park in Cheshire.

There is an opportunity to create a new community that benefits from the previous owner’s huge investment in infrastructure and facilitates the growth of these innovative companies – not to mention absorbing the wealth of talent that is often released when a pharma site closes,” says Crocker.

However, not all such moves are successful. The former Roche site in Welwyn Garden City was repurposed as BioPark but is set to close at the end of 2019.

Urban hotspots

While the UK’s so-called Golden Triangle – the renowned cluster of Oxford, Cambridge and London - remains its pre-eminent location for R&D, and therefore investment, emerging urban clusters around the UK are also generating interest.

Manchester, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow all have developing life sciences sectors, while Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol, Aberdeen and Dundee are following close behind. Like Oxford, Cambridge and London, these cities have strong universities that are producing the talent the industry seeks.

New developments reflect their growth. In October 2018, the University of Birmingham announced it was seeking a funding partner to develop a £300 million life sciences park.

While in Manchester, Qiagen recently pre-let over 90,000 square feet at CityLabs 2.0, close to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council welcomed last year’s announcement a multi-million pound medicine campus was being created in Manchester saying: “This is an opportunity that as a city we cannot afford to miss.”

Finding the right location is key. “We’re increasingly seeing property become a strategic differentiator in the life sciences industry and demand for space is growing,” says Crocker.

It’s something property developers know well. Once, the development of life science facilities was reliant upon public sector support. But increasingly, private sector developers like Stanhope & Mitsui are backing schemes like the extension to the British Library at London’s Kings Cross, in a knowledge quarter, which attracts R&D scientists, academics and companies.

Indeed, despite the growth of regional cities, London still has big potential for rapid growth with over five million square feet of space aimed at the life sciences sector in the pipeline. Plus, the arrival of Crossrail will boost local biopharma centres in locations such as Whitechapel.

For life sciences companies, location choices within the UK are growing, which is opening up new opportunities but equally requiring companies to drill down into what they’re looking for.

“A company needs to consider, where it is located, who it located with, what access it has to talent and whether it is offering the facilities that workers want, like modern, co-working spaces that are close to amenities,” says Crocker. “The life science industry isn’t just seeing higher levels of demand for space but there are fundamental changes in where companies want to be based and the type of buildings they want to occupy.” 

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