Q&A – The industry perspective

As part of our Biotech Review 2021, we sat down with industry leaders Stephanie Morris of Imperial College London, Iain Thomas of The University of Cambridge, and Richard Fagan of UCLB to discuss the key trends, issues, and challenges of the biotech sector in the last year, and to get their outlook on the year ahead.


First published in our Biotech Review of the year – issue 9.

What are the main issues that you’ve been dealing with in 2021 that will affect the next 12 months?

Iain Thomas: The pandemic forced many labs to restrict access, which inevitably has had a knock-on effect on research, which has been at once both reduced and focused. One of the main, ongoing challenges in 2022 will be ramping up this feedstock of research and opportunities.

Richard Fagan: I agree – from a spin-out perspective, 2021 saw many clinical trials essentially shut down. Hopefully we’ll see a changed picture in 2022, but with the new Covid-19 variant spreading I have to say people are getting nervous again. It’s not just a case of reduced research, though. 2021 saw a significant diminution in charitable donations to research institutions. The funding environment is decidedly different and though things are beginning to pick back up, it will be some time before institutions of every hue – not just Cancer Research – get back to where they were.

Stephanie Morris: There’s also the uncertainty that still abounds. It’s still tricky to meet face-to-face, for instance. This is something of a double-edged sword because although platforms like Zoom and Teams perhaps make people more accessible, you definitely miss out on certain opportunities not meeting in person.

What were the silver linings of the COVID pandemic from your perspective – has there been any positive change in the sector?

Richard: Faster regulatory approval has been a benefit of the pandemic, both in terms of getting things into the clinic, and getting things out of the clinic. I think this more streamlined approach could remain and prove to be a long-term benefit.

Stephanie: I totally agree, the regulatory assessment framework has become faster and smarter because of Covid. Additionally, as hospitals became more stretched, clinical trials and healthcare had to be done differently, with many trials moved into the home. Decentralising the clinical phase and taking the participant out of the hospital has had several benefits.

Iain: I think we’ve also seen a societal shift in attitude toward risk and towards new innovations. People didn’t back away from mRNA vaccines in the way they might have if there were no pandemic, which has been positive. Covid has also encouraged many in the sector to think differently about the way they focus their research and deliver on projects, leading to working in a more driven and precise way.

Richard: The mRNA point is an important one. I think we could see vaccines revert from peptide to mRNA platforms. This is partly because the pandemic has demonstrated how quickly you can alter the vaccines when variants emerge – it’s an excellent platform that has proven itself.

Have you seen more collaboration between companies/entities that wouldn’t normally be open to cooperate?

Richard: To an extent, yes. The rise of virtual platforms has certainly helped connect individuals who might otherwise not have been connected, which has allowed some collaborations to occur.

Iain: I wouldn’t say it’s a clear yes or no. I think it’s certainly the case that bigger organisations have been open to collaboration because they have the resource to do so. It’s been slightly more difficult for smaller organisations, partly because they’ve spent parts of the last year in survival mode, making collaboration harder. The change is coming, though, and we could see this soon.

Stephanie: I agree – the collaboration we have seen has typically been on matters related to Covid-19. On non-Covid-19 related activities, we’ve actually seen some collaborations pause; so, it’s sort of a yes and a no.

What biotech trends do you expect for 2022 and how are they going to affect your work?

Stephanie: ATMPs – advanced therapy medicinal products – will continue to grow. Personalised medicines, too, I think will continue to grow. Digital health, which unites several different areas, will also continue to be a high growth area. And then, beyond individual aspects of the healthcare industry, I think sustainability will also broadly become a higher focus.

Richard: I agree – I think a push towards zero carbon manufacturing and other environmental issues, while they may not be totally solved within the next year, will certainly start to be addressed in 2022. And similarly, I agree gene therapies and personalised medicine will be sought-after properties.

Iain: Yes, and the activity in terms of circular economy has been staggering in the last year and we’ll probably continue to see high activity. But also, the intersection between life sciences technology alongside other sectors – take agritech and meat alternatives for example – will be a big area of growth as investors cast their eye to the exciting developments in that space.

Is data and AI something you see as having a greater role in biotech in the future?

Iain: AI is essential at this point, and high levels of data processing is now producing very real and very observable results. This is only going to continue growing in importance.

Richard: I agree, and we’re already seeing the advantages of increased data volume bear fruit in drug discovery, repurposing, screening, for instance. And as AI is only as good as the data that sits behind the algorithm, with greater access, those results can only get better.

Iain: And I think a key aspect of this is, again, a societal change in attitude towards data and how the NHS uses data. I think people are still mindful of their privacy, but they now see the importance of accessible data, which will be an enabling factor moving forward.

How will the funding environment and landscape change in the future?

Iain: I think because of the way government is deploying money through challenge led initiatives and ARIA (the Advanced Research and Invention Agency), there will be a shift towards more collaborative work to solve specific problems. There are already several examples of this working well.

Richard: I agree, and I think the funding environment has become tighter in a way, partially from this more targeted funding approach, and Brexit has also cut off some sources of EU funding. On the other hand, US, and in particular PE, investment has picked up. It’s always been available, but I think US investors have been looking outwards far more in recent times.

Stephanie: I think that’s right, and I’m not sure how much that has actually resulted in transactions, but I suspect it has gone up. In any case, the engagement from US and PE funding has certainly gone up, which has been an encouraging sign for the sector. This increased engagement is partially due to the move online, with online networking expanding the available contacts and possible relationship building opportunities.