Episode #4: Scaling Biotech companies in challenging times has been saved
Episode #4: Scaling Biotech companies in challenging times
Life Sciences Connect
The Biotech sector is a key player in driving biopharma innovation and developing ground-breaking treatments for patients. Supporting the growth of this sector is vital to ensure that R&D efforts continue, both now and in the future. However, like most industries, this sector faces a complex set of challenges.
Over the past six months, the biotech sector has rapidly pivoted to respond to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies have grappled with this new reality by adapting to a new way of working and by forging new partnerships across the sector. In the next six months, companies will need to navigate the challenges associated with Brexit including planning for possible workforce related issues and a possible new regulatory environment.
In the fourth episode of Life Sciences Connect, we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the Biotech Industry.
This episode is led by our host Karen Taylor. Karen is joined by Hanno Ronte, Partner at Monitor Deloitte, Frances Cousins, Partner in Deloitte’s Healthcare Technology practice and Steve Bates, CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association.
This episode explores:
- The challenges and opportunities Biotech companies have faced as they pivoted to respond to COVID-19
- The legacy that the COVID-19 pandemic will leave for the Biotech Industry
- The possible impact of Brexit on the Biotech industry
Steve Bates OBE
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Karen Taylor (00:00:03): Welcome to “Life Sciences Connect”, Deloitte’s Podcast on the Life Sciences industry. This series features conversations with leaders from across the healthcare ecosystem sharing their insights on the critical issues facing the industry today.
Karen Taylor (00:00:27): Hi, my name is Karen Taylor and I lead Deloitte’s Center of Health Solutions, an independent research hub that supports Deloitte’s Healthcare and Life Sciences industry teams. One of the most fascinating aspects of my job is being able to meet industry leaders and gauge their views on the critical challenges that are affecting their business and to explore potential solution to these challenges. The Biotech sector is a key player in driving biopharma innovation and developing ground-breaking treatments for patients. Supporting the growth of this sector is vital to ensure R&D efforts continue—both now and in the future. However, like most industries, this sector faces a complex set of challenges. In this episode, I’m delighted to be joined by my colleagues Hanno Ronte, Frances Cousins and Steve Bates, CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association. Together they’re going to discuss the main challenges and opportunities for the Biotech Industry and how companies can thrive in an uncertain world with disruptive events such as Covid-19 and Brexit. I’d like to give an opportunity to each of our guests to introduce themselves. So I’ll start with Fran.
Frances Cousins (00:01:32): Thanks, Karen. My name is Frances Cousins. I’m a Partner in Healthcare Technology working with Deloitte and everyday working with clients in the Biotech and MedTech and hospital sector to support their digital innovation.
Karen Taylor (00:01:48): Thank you Fran. Steve, would you like to go next?
Steve Bates (00:01:52): Sure. Thanks Karen. I’m Steve Bates. I’m the Chief Executive of the UK BioIndustry Association. Been in the role for 8 years being the voice of the sector to the government and fortunately in the Covid era to be organising and much of the industry’s response into the UK government. I also sit on the UK vaccine taskforce and UK testing taskforce.
Karen Taylor (00:02:12): Thanks Steve. And Hanno?
Hanno Ronte (00:02:14): Yeah, my name is Hanno Ronte. I’m a strategy Partner at Deloitte in London and amongst many other things focus on biotech services, which we call Biotech-in-a-box™️ to help grow biotech companies in the UK and to create the next unicorn to build UK Plc for benefit of our patients.
Karen Taylor (00:02:37): So thanks. So, I’m gonna let you have a little chat amongst yourselves. So perhaps you could start just by discussing the main challenges and opportunities for biotech companies that you’ve seen and particularly for those companies that have pivoted to respond to the covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps Steve you could just kick us off on that.
Steve Bates (00:02:57): Sure, well I think that in a sense has been a bit of the luck of the draw as to whether companies have had technologies or capabilities that have been easy to pivot into COVID-19. I think everybody was very very keen to do what they could and I think we’ve seen in terms of the opportunity obviously an immense focus on this—focus from government, focus from funders, focus from scientists, focus from teams and staff to deal with the pressing challenge that there is globally in terms of the pandemic. So I think there’s been the opportunity of the immense focus and that’s led to the opportunity of the ability to get things going very very fast and the breaking down of some of the traditional barriers to doing this with new ways of working being established both through lockdowns, so everyone doing everything virtually, but also some of the traditional ways in which things will be done. You know I think people putting to one side the way things will be done traditionally just focusing on task in hand. And I have seen that particularly in some of the innovation I’ve seen in developing laboratory testing and new forms of normal forms of testing where you’ve got, you know, essentially the development of test for a disease that was unheard of last year and you’ve got the way that that’s been organised in the UK context into an entirely new population service that’s been grafted onto Public Health England effort. The other things from a therapeutic perspective is obviously some people have had vaccine candidates for therapeutic candidates that have been able to be re-rolled more easily. Synergen being a good example of inhaled product aimed at respiratory disease and that’s led to again immense focus rapid really rapid with development of trials and trial capabilities, and it’s a very promising early result. I think the main thing that I’d say is speed is both the challenge and the opportunity and I think probably the challenge that I’ve seen that companies have had to face is as the world is changed understanding who to go to what the contact points are has changed particularly in terms of health services or others who are organising this. Established roots haven't always been the ones that have worked. New institutions like the vaccines task force or testing task force have been established and understanding who you go to with your thing and how you get paid for it has been a challenge. So I'd say those are some of the things that people have found it's a new world and new ways of working are both the opportunity and challenge.
Hanno Ronte (00:05:41): Thanks Steve. I think my perspective is that I think it has really been the story of two halves because I think you've clearly outlined than there have been some “winners”, people who have the right capabilities who have the right drug have found a lot of support and even though you know, I think they was not necessarily always easy to walk through the government apparatus to get their products developed and scale beyond anyone's imagination, but I think there have also been some losers. I think a lot of clinical trials were halted or delayed. Funders and investors have been more cautious and not necessarily injected the funding that some companies wanted and for some, in particular the smaller businesses, I think shifting to a completely virtual web working has not always been the easiest and I think the changes in the health system and the focus of the health system to devote itself so much to Covid has made a lot of companies lives quite difficult.
Frances Cousins (00:06:40): One of the things that strikes me, and Steve I would be really interested in your perspective on this, is the ventilator challenge for example is an analogy saw people coming together across industry working in partnerships where previously there had been competitive walls or barriers between that. Do you think some of the bigger challenges to come with Covid for example in manufacturing and distributing vaccines that volume will see that kind of partnership emerging within just in the industry over the next year or so?
Steve Bates (00:07:10): I think in the manufacturing of the vaccine, we've already seen it. I mean since the BIA has been at the heart of bringing together community of contract manufacturers who linked up really as a result of meetings that we were having in February with the gang at Oxford trying to help them think through scale-up and production challenges and part of the reason now why you've got the possibility to make doses at risk before clinical trials have finished is because of that thinking and that new way of working which was amazing to see from my perspective. And If I can reflect on Hanno’s point, I think you're right that the shutting down of the health systems to nothing but Covid has had an impact on companies dealing with oncology and other places where trials have been halted. We've worked really really hard to try and help NIHR in particular, the National Institute for Health Research, understand the importance of restarting research is part of getting the NHS back up-and-going from the UK perspective. Some companies have had global trials, which have been able to keep going a bit depending on how Covid has hit where their sites are and obviously now it's affecting everywhere. So, you know, even if you have Australian sites or US sites it is probably going to have an impact. And of course, the other thing is we've tried very hard to make sure through making sure that the sector is seen as essential workers that people who have got labs could get going and working in Labs. You can't pipette over Zoom, and many things you can do over Zoom, but some of the basic, you know, the actual lab work and we're seeing a lot of innovation I think and some of the challenges of building structures to enable labs to keep going with shifts differently bubbles groups working in different ways, part-time going in and out. All of that has also been happening for companies and for some companies, companies that are not yet at the point of having clinical studies, the Biotechs, in some senses, that's not being too dramatically effective have been able to continue bench work without too much, well, obviously the social distancing and PPE impacts, but that has continued perhaps with different times of commutes or empty roads for a period of time.
Hanno Ronte (00:09:30): For me the question is to what extent the NHS has really stop funnelling patients into biotech, into trials. I mean is that something you’ve seen Fran?
Frances Cousins (00:09:44): Yes, absolutely. I think that the wholesale shutdown of elective care and as Steve’s mentioned about oncology and other clinical specialties has created a real change in the way that the service is operating redirecting staff, but I think whilst that has clearly had a tremendous impact on patients on clinical teams and it all does need restoration and restart now. There also are opportunities and some of the revised models of care that have been implemented for the Health Service and also for biotech. So I think of companies that I've worked with in the past where they have a novel medical devices or novel testing approaches, which really do fit nicely within virtual care models, particularly in outpatient setting, so I do think we continue this sort of Tale of Two Cities of some organisations really having opportunity and others facing significant challenge. But overall, we've never seen the type of wholescale change of focus within the Health Service. We've never had a level four critical incident in service delivery since the establishment of the NHS in 1948. So we've got to try and identify those silver linings that come from the impact that Covid has had on care and I do think they are there and some of them are very real for the Biotech sector.
Steve Bates (00:11:05): One of my favourite phrases of this term is, you know, sometimes nothing happens for decades, but sometimes decades happen in a weekend. And I think we have seen that that change and I think for me there's two folds of this we should remember that the UK clinical trial capability has demonstrated itself to the globe through the recovery trial in Covid and has been the first community, and it is a community that's come together across the NHS with people doing new things, to demonstrate in Covid era a significant clinical intervention that is making a real difference for seriously ill patients and that is a big triumph that we should celebrate. Yes, it required everybody focusing on one thing. But at least that focus has resulted in some significant outcomes. And I think we as an ecosystem should reflect on that and show, you know, others had similar peaks, but weren't able to deliver clinical research at the scale and quality that the UK was able to do and the pace to get to a meaningful clinical outcomes so it has contributed something there. And I think the other thing that I notice here is that some of the revolution is not happening within Biotech sector, but it's happening amongst the community. People who didn't used to Zoom, either to join their local choir, see their grandchildren or do work on are now very happy to do it with GPs and that unleashes an efficiency gain, which if we captured correct going forward as gives us the opportunity to move a decade forward in a year. Or you know several relatives who are more senior than me who are now very happy and fully expect all things to be done virtually which have been a challenge at Christmas when they didn't have an iPad.
Hanno Ronte (00:12:56): Well, I think you mentioned something really interesting which links into this earlier is that the UK is sort of responded quite well in terms of doing these clinical trials and also from a regulatory perspective and I'm just wondering to what extent this sort of regulatory attitude is actually going to be a positive legacy of Covid and actually can create a real competitive advantage for the Biotech sector in the UK.
Steve Bates (00:13:22): I think we've always had in the MHRA a forward leaning and constructive regulator in some senses they putting together the package for the regulator's that recovery trial wasn't the biggest part, but they were able to do it very nimbly and rapidly and I know that they are keen to ensure the ecosystem gets working again. And I once people have done things differently, then you’ve got over that barrier. I hope we can learn from it. Not all of the trials that you need will function exactly in the same way as recovery but I think you know if we can show actually we're building datasets during this period of time or people aren't seeing people face-to-face. Maybe they'll be some learnings from that will actually drive new ways of doing other types of trial as well.
Frances Cousins (00:14:20): We've certainly seen within healthcare and we've recently done some surveys of clients and patients at hospitals and note that the level of satisfaction that their patients have with communicating digitally has increased exponentially. So now we're seeing levels 92-94 percent people comfortable transacting healthcare virtually which is just unheard or would have been unheard or would have been below 40% prior to Covid and that's mirrored as you say Steve with the comfort of professionals transacting that way. And I think there are some challenges therefore which offer opportunity to biotech. I mentioned before remote diagnostics, one of the big limiting factors actually transacting healthcare virtually is being able to refer people for tests and to provide the opportunity to get all that diagnostic information available in one place. So there's two implications there, one is that the ability to do home based testing, post based testing. I mean just think of what we've learnt from the testing process and being able to target tests out to certain populations even practical things like identifying priority post boxes for Covid test return. These are things that have infrastructures that can be rolled out to support virtual care in the longer term as well. And I think that the second thing is, which comes to your point Steve about datasets, because I think now that we are transacting a lot of the care through virtual Telehealth means we are moving more to the recording of the outcomes of those interactions digitally, which will give us a really rich data sets that can inform research but also can inform service development and further innovation.
Hanno Ronte (00:16:12): That is interesting. So there really will be a legacy out of Covid. And I am just hoping that I think from a regulatory environment perspective, from funding environment but also from talent perspective that will last and sustain into the time post Brexit and in some ways, I think Covid has given the Biotech industry in the UK a little bit of a shot up the arm to revitalise it and create a focus on it.
Steve Bates (00:16:41): I think another thing that's been new in this this period, is how biotech companies have engaged with venture capitalists in the funding community that they have got. I mean in a sense, you know as I started the year, I started the year with the JP Morgan conference in San Francisco, as everybody goes to, to do the beauty pageant and hopefully get on the list of the VCs and seek meetings in hotel rooms and go to the parties of an evening. You know by March, pretty much everything on the biotech calendar had gone and we were replacing that with virtual partnering which I think has actually worked remarkably well. And members tell me that actually being liberated from having to go to see VC's in in the east coast of the US repeatedly has been a godsend and that those VC seem to have a degree of comfort working virtually, just as the doctors and the patients have got a degree of comfort working virtually. And I think some of that virtual working may also be to the benefit for and lead to greater efficiencies in that community. I think we've seen people innovating and endeavouring to use new ways of engaging with VCs and a couple of VCs have told me they made investments with people they've never actually met. I'm interested to see whether that's something that they continue as a style or I am probably yet to be convinced that will fundamentally change forever, but perhaps it will. So, I think we are seeing that and of course what that has led to is a focus from the public markets and the finance community or sectors of the economy that have a long-term future. Life Sciences has been in the shop window. We've seen a significant run into Life Sciences during the Covid period and I think the economy generally has seen the value of having the ability to innovate in this space and it's been a good opportunity for the sector. We've seen IPOs continue, Freeline went out the other week on Nasdaq from the UK-base. So in some respects, it's been quite a positive time with novelty also in process of how Biotechs do one of the core things which is raise and continue to get support from funders.
Hanno Ronte (00:19:04): Well, one of the interesting challenges that we still see though is that I think a lot of the companies are science driven and I think to actually get the capabilities towards being more commercial towards being more foresight full around what can happen I think remains a challenge. And I think you know the industry association that you represent for me I think is really a vanguard and trying to create a sense of collective action and the organisations like ours are trying to respond by changing how we offer support companies with much more integrated much simpler types of support. But you know, I'd be interested to hear you Steve to what extent is the sort of sense of collective action and the sense of the industry leveraging the advantage of the UK have on the government support as one becoming more important or less important.
Steve Bates (00:19:58): So I think the industry has come together and I think at times of crisis people are keen to catch up with family or catch up with friends or catch up with community and I think we are a community that people have rallied around. It's been great for me to be at the heart of that community and the DIA. I think you know practical ones that have led to outcomes I can see three; that the community of manufacturers who rallied around both the Oxford and Imperial science projects to give them a manufacturing leg up to be able to scale both clinical trial and now to produce them to population level requirements and that's been a real that wouldn't have happened without a community at the pace that we're seeing and that's one of the reasons why the UK is staying fast. Second is the group that came together to look at antibodies and there's some really interesting work going on in the BIA about screening antibodies in a collective way to find some good candidates to work out what might be useful things that will work not only on spike but also in other areas of other ways other methods of action against Covid. So, there's been a real community come together there. And again, I think that that has improved the science of that work by by acting in the collective sense. And finally I think also where CEOs have been concerned about the future of financing we've been able to bring together a really practical set of companies, in a similar place, to make sure that government support systems like the Future Fund, to come in alongside VC funding rounds, works for a sector. And I think the input that we've had collectively from CEOs to make sure that those things are meaningful for Life Science companies which are slightly differently shaped and slightly different requirements, slightly different investor basis, to that which you see in the traditional tech company that has also worked in a practical sense. As well as the fact that people like to come together and we've tried to use Remo and other platforms, podcasts like this, to bring community together because we are gregarious and collaborative community and we know that science is a team sport as well as understanding how you turn that into practical commercial value.
Hanno Ronte (00:22:22): That's actually has been one of the key stumbling blocks and in my view that actually the science is good and the development is good but a lot of companies than you know with very few exceptions do not really want to scale and try and almost sell out and sell the compound or the technology much much earlier than is maybe customary in other countries, and I was wondering whether you know what your reaction to that is?
Steve Bates (00:22:50): I'm not sure I subscribed to this. I think it is easy to look across the pond and think that you know, everybody becomes a Regeneron and everybody becomes a Genzyme, you know, I think you know, I look at the heritage out of the UK of Shire we forget it, you look at companies like GW Pharma or Oxford Nanopore and I don’t think you can say that they are unambitious in terms of their ability to grow from a UK base to globally relevant companies. And there's lots of companies in the US and China and other parts of Europe that gets bought along the way and sometimes it is right that companies get bought. You know, I've sat with CEOs who have said you know that they would have liked to have gone all the way but the money that is with them has encouraged them to make an exit. So, it's not the ambition of the management or the ambition of the team itself. It’s obviously that sometimes you've got a closed-end VC who's got to hit a target and hit a number and have a number in a number of years. They may well, even if they themselves can see that the value is going to happen down the line, they may have their own compulsion to sell. So I'm not sure that I buy this argument that there's a lack of ambition or lack of vision. I think it's very very difficult and you have to be very lucky to construct something that's both commercially valuable and have the right mix of players that can take you all the way. There are examples but getting so far on going back and doing it again is another incredibly valuable way in which you can build and scale companies and if you've got so far then and your tasks made a success of it then I think one of the things we need to think about is particular as we develop new companies is how do you make sure that that talent returns into the sector comes around and does another go and is incentivised to do that. We try and think about that in terms of the tax regime in the UK, the opportunity for entrepreneurs, and the recognition that people who go on this incredibly difficult journey get from society.
Hanno Ronte (00:25:03): The question for me then becomes though should you know, is this you know a degree of geographic concentration a key element of the future because I think we've been some ways, you know, talked a little bit about you know clusters of activity around Cambridge, around Oxford, around The Crick Institute and White City now and then some around Manchester and Leeds, Manchester Alderley Park, and what I'm interested in is, you know, to what extent is this sort of virtualisation and democratisation of interactions change that and how important are these sort of geographic concentrations of talent, money, signs as an ingredient for the future?
Frances Cousins (00:25:48): I think the historic functioning as you mentioned as enlightenment and science in this country and it has all often been about place but I do think we're starting to break down some of those barriers and difficulties just literally in the last couple of months by recognising that we can all work virtually and assue the commute and it's the first steps, it's baby steps, but it is a way in which we can create a different nature of interaction amongst not just our national community, but also amongst our international community. I wouldn't want to be completing a tax return if I lived in America and worked in the UK, but I do think we are looking at a more global workforce and if we take that that analogy in time I think place will be less important. But there are things, as you say Steve you can't pipette over Zoom, that will require concentrations of capability, skill and talent and physical facilities, but I think you know for quite some time with probably going to have to be clustered together to get critical mass and to get opportunities for people to build careers and pass through different organisations as they do that. So I think, I think there's a combination of opportunities so that we can be a more virtually based organisational mechanism, but there are still functions that we would have to all be in the same place to discharge.
Karen Taylor (00:27:18): This is a fascinating discussion, but I just like you if you could just to think ahead over the next six months. And the challenge we are going to face both with the threat of a second peak if that's to become a reality. But the one thing we do know that's coming which is Brexit and the opportunities and also the challenges our industry, the Biotech industry, is going to face.
Steve Bates (00:27:43): I think as we come toward the end of the transition period, I see a few of the buckets of issues that are likely to come ahead. I think there is obviously one which is going to be how is borders, tax, trade, tariffs going to work and is there a deal or isn’t there a deal and that will come out in the wash and that will be a change and there will be you know a new set of rules and the new set of work to that companies will have to get used to and depending on the nature of biotech business that could be things like import tariffs on stuff that you use. It may be moving on materials around a little more difficult, but I think we'll have some plans and processes for that. I think that there's a second bucket of people issues many people have people who come from the European Union heritage and some people are choosing to register to stay in the UK, people may find recruiting—there will be new sets of rules and that will need to be worked through so both retention and recruitment will be a series of issues. And I think that there's then a series around regulation of the new regulatory environment. I think how that online and protocol plays out, how the UK internal market plays out with that because if you're able to put goods on the market in Northern Ireland using European rules and they can then, through UK rules, come into the rest of the UK, I think that will be a route that many companies will work to investigate. So, the detailed workings of the Northern Island protocol will be very very important for our sector. So those are probably the buckets to sort of border and tax base and the disruption we will see through that will be a piece of work to manage, people which is probably the most important one and then for me regulation within our sector.
Hanno Ronte (00:29:41): I mean, I would share that I think you know, I would have almost put those sort of regulatory environment first as because I think this is what we also hear from investors around the concern. You know, what is the regulatory environment in the UK? Can we really invest in Biotechs here or should we rather go to Switzerland or other countries where the sense of destination in particular within the European context is more assured. And so I think we definitely see that. I think my only other different perspective will be to see whether the way of working and science will sort of snap back to a pre-Covid sort of slightly more inward-looking way or whether this democratisation that we talked about earlier and the virtualisation of engagement across the world not-with-standing your comment that you can't do pipetting in Zoom, but at least the interactions, the money, the expertise becomes much more global and I do hope that—you know even post Brexit and post Covid—will be real asset in the next six months.
Frances Cousins (00:30:50): The other perspective that I will add is that I think we have learned a lot about supply chain resilience in the Covid period and having perversely, even though it's been obviously you know incredibly difficult and busy time for people in procurement functions, no across different industries not least the Health Service, they have developed the networks both with national bodies, international bodies and also within the country that gives more confidence about the ability to retain resilience in the supply chain as we go through this next phase. And I think at the basic level it's about having that knowledge as to how to cope with difficulties and shortages and being able to stand up the type of response capability that has been coordinated across sectors and also, you know across industries, that will be good learning for the future.
Karen Taylor (00:31:48): I just like to ask each of you in turn if there's one key takeaway, you'd like our listeners to take from this. I mean, it's been wide-ranging fascinating conversation. But what is the one thing that you'd like to leave the listeners with? And maybe I start with Hanno?
Hanno Ronte (00:32:06): Yeah, I think my one key takeaway out of the last sort of six months in the Biotech Industry is I think the way the working has changed fundamentally with a new sense of trust between industry, government and the NHS and if that is the one thing we can take into the next 6 to 12 months, it will pay enormous dividends.
Karen Taylor (00:32:30): Steve?
Steve Bates (00:32:32): Well, I mean, I think you could say that if you look at the situation in terms of a global recession#, great deal of uncertainty around Covid, there's never been a better time to do whatever you're going to do in biotech. Oddly companies start or things happen at the oddest of times. I think actually many of the conditions focus on the sector VCs being available, the opportunity to do things differently are all there and I think now would be a good so actually do some of the things that you always wanted to do. So do it now.
Karen Taylor (00:33:05): Thanks, and Fran, last but definitely not least.
Frances Cousins (00:33:08): The enabling technologies for some of these virtual models are not yet stable and they're not yet resilient. And I think that's the big opportunity. We are seeing lots of VCs investing in Medtech and we've managed to deliver a seismic change in the operating model across vast waves of all our patients and healthcare services that that we should capitalise on now and take the best of that forward into the 21st century.
Karen Taylor (00:33:36): Thanks you Fran, and thank you Steve and Hanno. Thank you for sharing your insights today. Thank you to our listeners. I hope you will join us again for the next episode in our Life Sciences Connect podcast series. And with that we will say Goodbye.
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