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Why PacBio chose London for its European headquarters

PacBio (Pacific Biosciences of California) is an American biotechnology company founded in 2004 that develops and manufactures systems for gene sequencing. PacBio’s HiFi sequencing technology uniquely combines the benefits of high accuracy with long read lengths, providing a comprehensive view of genomes and transcriptomes to scientists tackling complex genetic challenges.

This month the company opened a new headquarters for their work across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). The space in Rolling Stock Yard in Kings Cross, houses the PacBio EMEA commercial team, plus extensive laboratory space.

We spoke to PacBio’s Vice President and EMEA General Manager, Neil Ward, about why the company have chosen to base themselves in London, and to understand a bit more about what makes their gene sequencing technology so special.


Can you give us a bit of a background about PacBio?

PacBio has been around for a while, but the company has been going through something of a reinvention recently. 2021 was a transformative year where we recapitalized the company with inward investment of around $1 billion. It means we’ve been able to move from averaging between $70-90 million in revenue per year, to just over $130 million last year. A big part of that is to do with our global expansion. I was brought on board in the middle of last year, to lead on our growth in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Why did you choose to base your EMEA headquarters in the UK?

There’s a legacy of great genomics work here in the UK. Prior to joining PacBio, I’d spent 13 years at Illumina. The sequencing part of their work was originally a spin out from Cambridge University, and many other competitors also use technology that originates from the UK. When we were looking to expand our global footprint, that made the UK an obvious choice. It really is a genomic powerhouse and we felt we needed a physical presence here to be a strong part of that.

And how did you settle on Kings Cross?

Many of the genomic tech companies are based in science parks around Cambridge or Oxford. But with the change in working practices during the pandemic, we didn’t want to be out on the periphery. We wanted to embed ourselves in the heart of a city and be easily accessible for our staff and collaborators. London ticked all those boxes.

King’s Cross is particularly well connected for international travel, and we’re situated within a growing tech scene. We’ve got the Google headquarters nearby, and a couple of really innovative companies within our own building: Gyroscope Therapeutics and Purespring. Being co-located among that confluence of IT and bioinformatics, with the flow of innovations springing out of the many academic institutions in the area… it’s great. We just couldn’t think of anywhere we’d rather be in Europe.

How easy was it to find the kind of space you needed?

It was an interesting time to be looking for real estate, when many others were focused on downscaling their offices. But it meant we could be a bit opportunistic. We strongly believe that London will bounce back from the pandemic and will always be one of the strongest centres globally.

But it wasn’t easy to find an appropriately sized space that could accommodate our specialist laboratory equipment. Fortunately, with the gene therapy companies already located at Rolling Stock Yard, the landlords really understood what was needed from a facilities perspective.

How important will the move be for attracting new talent to your team?

We’re using the money we raised last year in a number of ways, investing in our headquarters here in London, but also significantly expanding our commercial team. We’re just starting to demonstrate how our technology can win significant market share in the genomics industry over the next five years. That makes us very confident in our growth trajectory, so we’ve intentionally taken real estate that’s larger than we currently need.

We want to attract the best talent. Employees want to work somewhere vibrant, particularly after a couple of years of working from home. But people also need to be able to balance those home life pressures, so we’re trying to create the sort of hybrid work environment that will drive productivity and give people the opportunity to come in and feed off the energy of the team. Nothing’s quite the same as being together in person. That energy and enthusiasm is what makes a company successful.

What makes your technology different?

Accuracy is the key for us. A few years ago we released the Sequel IIe platform, which is our current sequencing instrument. Its unique features really do make it the best, most accurate sequencing technology on the market.

Take an individual with a suspected rare genetic condition, maybe a child that’s struggling to thrive, there are thousands of possible underlying genetic causes. Ten years ago, many conditions would have gone unexplained. In more recent years short read genome sequencing technologies have allowed people to take a much more comprehensive view, but often they still miss parts. Our technology provides a long read comprehensive picture from one end of a fragment of DNA all the way to the other end of a chromosome, without the gaps that our competitors have.

Even after landmark projects like the 100,000 Genomes Project, more than half of the rare disease were being missed. We’re working on an interesting collaboration currently with Genomics England, looking again at some of those unsolved cases. And we are identifying underlying genetic causes that were just intractable with historical technologies. It’s providing answers patients and families need and it’s a great demonstration of the power of our technology.

What other types of organisations are you working with?

We work with a lot of the major academic institutions. They buy our instruments and use the technology for all sorts of things – human genomic research obviously, but also increasingly research around biodiversity. The Sanger Institute, for example, are doing a very interesting project, called The Darwin Tree of Life, to try and characterise the genomes of all species here in the UK.

We’re also excited to be working with a company in Switzerland, Genesupport (also known as Fasteris). They’re commercial providers of gene sequencing, providing DNA services to researchers worldwide. They will be offering PacBio HiFi sequencing using our Sequel IIe instruments. Anyone can go to them if they want to get PacBio sequencing data quickly and cost effectively, in a fee for service model. It really expands our reach.

We’re excited about what our technology can bring, so we’re keen to collaborate in new ways, and that’s particularly the focus of our new London lab. Genomics can be used in so many ways, from understanding the best treatment for someone’s cancer, to working out whether a butterfly species is likely to become extinct. The scope of what we can do with our technology is endless.

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