new medicines

CEO of Medicines Discovery Catapult, Chris Molloy provides a compelling analysis of pharma R&D productivity and the discovery of new medicines and the role that the SME sector can play in this

Despite the greatest explosion in ‘new’ biology in 50 years, pharma R&D productivity has been falling for a decade. According to an annual survey by Deloitte, the top 10 global pharma companies now have a return on their R&D investment of only 3.4% (1) and spiralling R&D costs. Stand up the SME sector. Traditionally the agile, risk-taking tester of new ideas, primed to be bought, incorporated into a bigger firm or to see their product developed by others, the SME now has a new opportunity: to grow.

The Medicines Discovery Catapult has been established in Cheshire as a national collaborative R&D centre to help SMEs overcome barriers to growth. Our insightful sector analysis, The State of the Discovery Nation, shines a light into their world and shows how they can be helped to go beyond the next acquisition, to become the next generation of [UK] pharma.

A model in need of retooling

Discovering new medicines is hard. Every successful medicine has to do the biological equivalent of threading the eye of a moving needle from 500 miles away. It takes an average of 13 years, hundreds of skills, thousands of people, millions of pounds and countless data points to turn 1% of good scientific ideas into an approved treatment. Even then, as more diverse patients use the product the risk of failure remains. It is no wonder that for every successful drug brought to market, $2 billion has been spent on it, and the sum of all the failures along the way.

If the blockbuster medicine is now a thing of the past what does the future look like? In short: more precise, more patient centred and more SME-led. We no longer need to develop new medicines for a mass market of medicine. Discrete groups of patients can now be selected by more advanced diagnostic tests, linked to the medicine and measured throughout the course of their treatment. Much of this is being proven in the treatment of cancers but can be extended into many other important diseases.

Who will make these more focussed targeted medicines? The SME community. This is the agile sector of scientific risk-takers who take academic excellence and develop new, high-value products. However, despite the UK’s global leadership in science and strong financial sector, we have fewer growth biotechs than we should, when compared with our global competitors. Too many of our firms are bought by a global market as soon as the green shoots show. Their ability to turn the hard-won experience into a strong growth pipeline is therefore limited, as is our ability to capture long-term value from the science we have invested in. This is a trend recognised in the UK’s Life Science Industrial Strategy, published in 2017.

New approaches, tools and technologies

To find out how best to help SMEs address key barriers to growth the Medicines Discovery Catapult talked extensively to the community about what tools, techniques and support systems they needed. The State of the Discovery Nation 2018 sets out clear calls to action for the sector, by the sector. It contains detailed responses from over 200 online surveys and 100 face-to-face interviews with senior executives from the drug discovery field.

The sector asks for two major interventions to help them reduce the risks of failure and become more efficient in translating great science into products.

1) Faster validation and release of academic disease model breakthroughs for industrial use

Biotechs need access to new models that better reflect human disease. Many of this remains locked in academia. Biotechs find that overly complex IP negotiations and insufficient industrial validation dissuades them from using their limited time and expensive venture capital to extract these potentially game-changing approaches.

SMEs and academia need: Independent testing of potentially breakthrough models and informatics systems, driven by consented patient samples and data.

2) Easier access to national R&D capabilities that can help them

The NHS, charities and research councils have a wide range of infrastructure, insights and systems that could help biotechs develop their products without having to reinvest or reinvent. These capabilities are themselves fragmented, which, coupled to biotech’s national fragmentation means they often go unknown or unused.

Biotechs and national capability owners need: greater visibility to each other and means by which industry can leverage public resources to create national wealth.

These are not simple challenges to address, but neither is medicines discovery in an SME with limited resources. Much of the necessary infrastructure already exists across the nation. The clear call is to apply our industry skills, facilities and neutrality to bring them to bear in the right way, at the right time. With this focussed support, SMEs will themselves develop the products that will attract the investment they need to grow rather than sell, and the UK can firmly embed the next generation of this strategic industry sector.

(1) A new future for R&D? Measuring the return from pharmaceutical innovation, Deloitte 2017.


Chris Molloy


Medicines Discovery Catapult

Tel: +44 (0)1625 238 734



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