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Clusters as super-connectors

Last month the thinktank Onward together with the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) hosted a panel discussion on building clusters of excellence and innovation with Minister of Innovation Lord Bethell. As heads of UK life science clusters, MedCity CEO Neelam Patel and Dr Séamus O’Neill, Chief Executive of the NHSA to contribute their knowledge and experience. We wanted to hear more, so we invited them back to share their experience and insight on why clusters work, and how they can work together to accelerate and amplify healthcare innovation. 


When we talk about clusters as places of innovation, where geography matters, the classic example is always Silicon Valley. But the idea goes much further back. Athens could be thought of as the life sciences cluster of the Ancient world, centring on Aristotle’s Lyceum, the first institution to systematically research all the known branches of knowledge, the first university. This attracted other scholars, who also came for the city’s culture, wealthy patrons and democratic way of life. Around the Lyceum grew a network of students who collected specimens for study across regions. These scholars began exploring the connections between pharmacology and farming technology, connecting the study of science with the early practise of biotechnology. For example, to examine the biochemistry of rennet and its potential for medicinal applications, Aristotle and his students consulted with cheesemakers and farmers of milk-producing animals to understand how rennet worked.  

If we translate this early model to life science clusters now, there are two things to consider. The first is that a successful cluster develops around key institutions with clinical and academic expertise, and in settings where there is a stimulating environment with supporting infrastructure and access to finance. Think of Boston, The Bay Area or San Diego. The second thing is that a successful cluster needs linking-up processes to connect public and private networks and to integrate different communities both within the cluster and beyond to the wider world. When things are connected up, collaboration can take place, and it’s then that open innovation happens.  


Agreed, innovation is about making things happen, and making things happen is a contact sport. You have to be on the ground, you have to have enough reach. There is excellent infrastructure in the UK but where the UK sometimes falls down is in not joining up different actors to become more than the sum of its parts. I think the Government recognises this now. There is a real skill in understanding a complex environment with a complex set of assets and connecting them by finding a common purpose. That joining up is what you and I do as our day jobs, Neelam. Certainly, when we consult with industry across the NHSA, and when we work with you at MedCity, that connectivity is a recurring theme. 

Without going too deep into the theory on clusters, Michael Porter’s cluster theory is very heavy on economic activity being embedded in social activities. Clusters are as much as about the glue that binds as they are about the activity itself and the industry that lead them. Other clusters such as Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv have a collective identity and advantage through aggregation. There are all sorts of characteristics that are important: critical mass of industry, access to R&D, access to capital, workforce, transport links, culture…. 


When I first started working in industry at a global pharma company over 20 years ago, clusters weren’t in existence in the UK…had there been, we certainly would have been able to innovate faster! Because when we embarked on a developing a new research strategy, we would need to leverage a network of scientific and clinical expertise, assess the market, access investment, find research collaborators.  This is the work of a cluster—to connect the ecosystem to accelerate innovation development so that diagnostics and therapies reach patients faster and to grow the economy. 

Last year for example, MedCity brought together a testing alliance of London universities that were able to pivot infrastructure and resources to provide over 20,000 PCR tests a day at the peak of the pandemic. This was done through establishing a network and sharing of best practice and this extended beyond London to other universities. Our learnings through this will be part of a paper we will be submitting on pandemic preparedness, with emphasis on ramping up existing infrastructure and capabilities at universities at speed when needed. 


To get the “big boys” in London to play together, I imagine you have to create a common purpose, that’s certainly true across the NHSA. There is a wealth of health and life science talent, innovation and ground-breaking activity in the North of England and to mobilise across the silos we do the joining up between them, to add value across the silos, while projecting nationally and internationally what we have to offer. That requires immense social capital and social skills. These are not traditional organisational skills. This is transorganisational leadership and aspiration, and Neelam, you and I are pushing these concepts every day. 

By working with other regional organisations, we bring greater strength and connectivity to the UK as a whole. Last year, for example, our two organisations linked up with other UK clusters—GW4, Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland (HIRANI), Life Sciences Hub Wales, Midlands Innovation, NHS Research Scotland and the Academy of Medical Sciences, to jointly represent the interests of life sciences in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) consultation on their Place-Based R&D Strategy. 


MedCity and the NHSA are now exemplars of UK clusters, in existence since 2014 and 2011 respectively. And we know from our own experience that the most effective way of building clusters of excellence and innovation is to invest in connecting those that are already in existence and leverage their best practice to diffuse nationally. Our two organisations are proof of that.  

Look at our recent work together on the Research England-funded project ‘Delivering Increased Wealth and Improving Health’. Through this project we have been bringing together hospitals, universities and industry to boost the economy with life sciences innovations. Together we are helping to serve a patient population of 34 million. 


Our clusters are still young compared with say Tel Aviv, which has been doing this for 30 years. It’s difficult to imagine but their biggest bilateral programme with the US started in 1977. The Israeli Innovation Authority is very keen to work with us because we work with multiple NHS trusts and universities on evaluation and co-production. We’re working with the Israeli Innovation Authority on an inward investment programme with heavy involvement from the Leeds MedTech cluster.  

The NHSA is working to connect the system together to enable Israeli innovators to access the right expertise, at the right time, in the best environment possible based on an in depth understanding of our mutual strengths and priorities. 


Driving inward investment is something our organisations have been very effective at doing because of our networks and ability to convene players on a neutral ground to promote good collaboration, especially where there is a sensitivity around certain programmes. And this is a value that we bring through our connectivity and networks into industry and academia. 

To give you an example, MedCity has leveraged the ability to attract investment within London and the Greater South East to develop our Angel investment programme which, in 5 years has enabled over 80 SMEs to raise over £30m with £6,5m raised through our investment network. And we know that a point of market failure is early seed investment so this has been pivotal 

We have collaborated with Innovate UK and Life Sciences Hub Wales to diffuse investment interest through to other regions supporting companies like Jellagen in Wales and Nuvision in Nottingham to raise investment to be the future unicorns that we all want to see.   

And working with the NHSA and other clusters we represent the UK life sciences ecosystem to major international markets. At the last face to face BioJapan conference MedCity and partners including Imperial, Oxford, Kings worked with NHSA and some of their members to showcase UK strengths to drive inward investment leading to research collaborations and long-term strategic partnerships, which over the years of building relationships with Japan and Korea have resulted in large scale collaborations between Japanese biopharma and UK institutions. 


Connecting the multiple lines to the helix of industry, academia and government is becoming ever more important, because 21st century infrastructure is surely about joining things up. That’s the network economy and the global economy that we’re in. Just building stuff and inventing stuff is not enough anymore. I absolutely agree with you, Neelam, and I relish working with MedCity because we learn so much from each other and we can together project the majority of UK life sciences overseas, between the NHSA and MedCity and our partners HIRANI in Northern Ireland, and health networks in the Midlands and  Scotland. Those links exist, so there is no point in replicating or reinventing those links. We need the investment to strengthen the connections and continue the process of joining up. From MedCity in London to the NHSA and further North, East, and West, infrastructure exists that we can join up as cluster organisations to anchor industry in the UK and attract investment into the UK. That is going to have to be a key component of levelling up. 


At the macro level you’re absolutely right that we are organically levelling up through the work we do in connecting silos across the UK, across industry, the NHS and academia, and convening those actors in our ecosystem where connections wouldn’t otherwise easily be made. 

And even at the micro level, just growing regions in terms of doing more research is a really good start. For example, there are many district general hospitals that have a role to play in conducting more trials. This is a way to start getting industry engagement in terms of clinical trials and it starts to boost cross-collaboration. But I think one of the keys to enabling work like this is to have cluster organisation like ours that can have a view of what is happening in the ecosystem. We are in a position to understand what the priorities are that a region needs to bring forward, and to bring the various sectors together to start the innovation process faster. 


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