Few sectors of the economy enjoy as many international connections as life sciences. Talented scientists and engineers from throughout the world have flocked to the UK in recent years to work in our thriving private sector and to carry out research and teaching at our world-class universities.
Yet those international connections now highlight two challenges that the UK’s life sciences sector faces from overseas. Other countries are snapping at the heels of Britain’s life sciences prowess, while the supply chain issues caused by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic are creating cross-border headaches.
Last year, the UK Government published its life sciences vision, outlining its ambition to make Britain the best place to develop and launch medicines. It’s a laudable aim.
Yet a recent report by research centre Future Health and consultancy firm WPI Strategy suggested the UK life sciences sector is falling behind big players across the European Union – as well as China and the United States – in some critical areas. The report outlined the global nature of the competition that the UK faces.
Tackling those challenges requires a fresh way of thinking. With its rich history of innovation, its strong local base, and its work with cutting-edge techniques, Britain’s electronics manufacturing sector holds the key to keeping our country’s life sciences industry competitive on the global stage.
Eyeing international challengers
Future Health and WPI Strategy’s report highlighted the challenges the UK faces from abroad. The Benelux countries – Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg – were second only behind the UK in terms of the number of European biotechnology businesses launched between 2012 and 2018, with their combined biotech industry raising seven times as much funding over the same period compared with 2005 to 2011.
Following Brexit, the region also now plays host to the European Medicines Agency, with the regulatory body relocating from the UK to Holland, while the Dutch government’s Smart Industry Initiative is promoting the use of nanotechnology and three-dimensional printing. Competition is also coming from further afield with South Korea increasing its spending on innovation as well as research and development (R&D), including by importing technology.
That’s not to say that this is a case of “them” and “us”. Indeed, the UK can and must continue to work hand-in-hand with our international partners on collaborations whenever possible – but without giving up our leading position in R&D.
Staying at the forefront of technological innovation will bring two clear benefits to the UK. The first is direct – inventing medical technology, or medtech, means the UK will create the devices that will help to save lives and improve health, both in hospitals and in the wider community.
The second is indirect. As well as the devices used by medics to treat patients and by the public to improve their own health, technology is also needed for use in laboratories by researchers to invent the medicines, therapies, and other treatments that will solve the challenges facing the world, like cancer, heart disease, and dementia.
Seeing the results in action
Those indirect benefits were illustrated by CB Technology’s recent collaboration with fellow Scottish firm Cellexus. CB Technology was hired to produce a precision electronic controller unit for Cellexus’ CellMaker bioreactor.
A bioreactor can be used by scientists to produce cells in their laboratories for use in experiments to develop new medicines and vaccines. The CellMaker can also be used to make bacteriophages, types of viruses that infect bacteria, which can be used as an alternative to antibiotics in the farming industry.
That’s important because reducing the amount of antibiotics given to animals and fish will help to tackle the growing problem of bacterial infections that have become resistant to antibiotics. It’s an illustration of how life sciences extends across agriculture and aquaculture, as well as human health.
Cellexus’ bioreactor has a small footprint in the laboratory, where space is often at a premium. The device uses “airlift” technology, which bubbles gases up through the chamber to stir the ingredients for creating cells, rather than using mechanical stirred bioreactors that then need to be cleaned with expensive chemicals.
Equipment like this is essential for carrying out cutting-edge R&D in the life sciences industry, both in university laboratories and in the private sector. Making sure researchers working in the UK have access to the right devices is a major factor in maintaining our country’s competitiveness.
Shortening supply chains
One of the reasons why Cellexus chose to work with CB Technology was its local expertise. By tapping into experience and specialities on their doorstep, life science companies can shorten their supply chains and insulate themselves against the vagaries of international commerce.
From the lack of road hauliers to drive lorries through to the soaring cost of shipping containers, few sectors have been left untouched by supply chain problems in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. The availability of raw materials and components – and the time it takes to get them from suppliers to manufacturers – are causing headaches for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the life sciences sector and beyond, whether they’re producing their own medtech devices or making equipment for use in laboratories.
Those challenges are especially acute for Britain’s thriving entrepreneurial start-up companies. With thousands of university spin-outs and start-ups, small businesses form the backbone of the life sciences sector.
Tapping into the expertise of their local electronics contract manufacturers (ECMs) is one way to stop those entrepreneurs getting tied up in knots. ECMs have the experience and contacts that are needed to help find the right part at the right price, and fill-in gaps when components go out of stock – it’s quicker and easier to speak to someone in the same time zone if a production process hits a snag.
Start-ups are unlikely to have the full gambit of skills in-house that are needed to deal with suppliers spread across continents. Instead, ECMs can act as partners and collaborators to get the job done.
Rising to the challenge
Yet being a trusted partner means that ECMs have to step up to the plate. Most ECMs already claim to offer a full range of services – including prototyping, ramp-to-volume production, and end-of-life management – yet the reality is that most expect their OEMs to drive the intelligence and control for that build-to-print environment.
Instead, ECMs need to be there from day one in the design process, able to advise the client on which components to use and which processes to employ. If a product’s mechanical design calls for 24 different types of screws and fastenings amongst its 700 parts, then the ECM can suggest using only three different types of screw; if two components are too close together in the design with the risk of a solder short circuit occurring then the ECM can use design for manufacturability rules to identify that issue and propose a remedy.
It’s a way of working that’s served us well at CB Technology. In effect, we become an extension of our clients’ design and production departments.
We’re using our existing skills in logistics, supply-chain management, and cost control to free-up our customers to work on the bits that only they can do. The creative steps that require insight and inspiration.
It’s a marriage of science and engineering. And it’s what’s going to keep the UK life sciences industry at the leading edge, in the face of increased competition from abroad.
Author details: Graeme Robertson is business development director at CB Technology