Health Technologies

Can the West Midlands turn the UK into a ‘science superpower’?

Demand for lab space in Oxford and Cambridge is vastly outstripping supply, hampering Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plans to turn the UK into a ‘science superpower.’

In February this year, Bidwell estimated that there was 10,000 sq ft of lab space available in Cambridge, compared to the two million sq ft demand.

Meanwhile, in Oxford, the commercial property agent said that just 25,000 sq ft was available – a fraction of the 845,000 sq ft required by the industry.

However, opportunities for development are emerging elsewhere.

Anil Vaidya is Life Sciences Sector Lead for the West Midlands Growth Company (WMGC). The economic development organisation works to attract investment to the region.

He says: “Most people tend to look at it from an Oxford/Cambridge/London position.

“There’s a lot of development going on in those areas and a lot of that will be coming online over the next couple of years.

“However, we feel that new developments and propositions in areas like the West Midlands are not being highlighted as they should.”

The West Midlands is home to around 600 life sciences companies employing 17,000+ people.

These businesses occupy a broad range of property spaces, with more set to open later this year.

The Birmingham Health Innovation Campus (BHIC), is offering up to 130,000 sq ft of lab and office space during its first development phase.

BHIC will have three floors dedicated to the Precision Health Technology Accelerator (PHTA), providing 17,000 sq ft of incubation and collaboration space.

The region also has a number of established life sciences and collaboration spaces, including Birmingham Research Park, University of Wolverhampton Science Park and University of Warwick Science Park.

Meanwhile, Longbridge is offering freehold and leasehold development opportunities for life sciences manufacturing and office spaces in a town setting.

Anil says: “We know that the younger generation looking to get into science don’t want to drive around the motorway to get to work. They’re far more environmentally-conscious.

“They want to work in a more urban type of setting with proximity to good quality living and entertainment, making places like Longbridge ideal for successfully recruiting the right type of talent.

“Another city centre development that is coming online now is Curzon Wharf, which is going to be offering up 130,000 sq ft of office, R&D and life sciences space.

“So overall, there’s a lot going on across the region in terms of life sciences activities and potential property opportunities.”

Anil Vaidya

Dated stereotypes about science and lab space mean opportunities like those in the West Midlands are being missed, Anil says.

The image of ‘bespectacled people in lab coats crowded around benches’ does not reflect the diverse demands of science R&D and manufacturing today.

Innovations in med tech and digital health are more often developed on desktop computers in air conditioned offices and light industrial spaces than in giant wet or dry labs.

Anil adds: “Those stereotypes impact what the life sciences space could actually look like.”

The UK’s life sciences industry took a major hit in February this year when AstraZeneca (AZ) announced that it was to build its new manufacturing facility in Ireland.

AZ chief executive Pascal Soriot said that the UK lacked the manufacturing incentives and access to green energy needed to make it a global life sciences hub.

However, Anil believes that the UK still has plenty to offer large pharma companies willing to look beyond London, Oxford and Cambridge.

He says: “The West Midlands has access to brownfield sites that could accommodate for suitable manufacturing.

“In many cases supported by the West Midlands Combined Authority’s brownfield regeneration programme, there is a significant and growing pipeline of not just manufacturing space, but industrial developments with fantastic sustainability records, meeting the needs of modern and future occupiers.”

“So for the likes of large pharma companies in need of a space, we can help them find that outside of the Golden Triangle.”

WMGC has already brought a number of life sciences investments to the region following the success of last year’s UK House event.

The eight-day programme of trade and investment talks took place during the Commonwealth Games, hosted in Birmingham.

The investors were brought onto its Global Growth Programme, which offers a support package for international companies looking to grow in the region.

Anil says: “We were able to attract diagnostic and medical distribution companies in the six months following the Games.

“We now have ongoing conversations with life science companies having built up from that initial activity.”



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