Aptus Clinical Features in the Financial Times
When Ruth Roberts heard that AstraZeneca, where she had worked for a decade, was leaving its home at Alderley Park in Cheshire for a new headquarters in Cambridge, she felt “a sense of grief for something lost”.
Six years on Ms Roberts, once the drugmaker’s global head of regulatory safety, is director of her own business, staffed almost entirely from her former colleagues at Astra.
Far from diminishing the region’s life sciences industry, the company’s departure has led to an explosion of entrepreneurialism, as many who had expected to spend their lives on a corporate payroll have mined unsuspected reserves of enterprise and innovation. These are not simply stories of personal reinvention, however; they offer wider insights into how a big life sciences campus can find a new sense of purpose and identity after it loses its anchor company.
Ned Wakeman, director of Alderley Park Accelerator, which supports the growth and development of life science companies at the park, tallies 86 spinouts from AstraZeneca since it sold the site in 2014. They are a mix of early-stage drug development companies and contract research organisations, that undertake clinical trials, and other functions, for big pharma clients. This surge of activity, he suggests, owes much to a decision to run boot camps for aspirant entrepreneurs in the months before the company left, as well as a continuing mentoring programme and the establishment of venture funds — investors included the local council — on which the new companies could draw.
Occupying 400 rolling Cheshire acres, Alderley Park offers rich pickings for pharma industry archeologists. It was originally occupied by ICI, one of the giants of the UK’s postwar industrial landscape, whose bioscience business Zeneca demerged in 1993, joining forces with Sweden’s Astra six years later.
Ensconced in a cozily cluttered office in the park’s main building, Ms Roberts said when she and her colleagues heard that the company was decamping to Cambridge, one of the world’s most influential centres for life science research, “we were initially shocked because this site has got such an amazing legacy for drug discovery and development.” However, displaying a pragmatism she suggests is characteristic of her profession, the toxicology specialist soon realised that many of the site’s outstanding scientists preferred to stay in the north. “And that gave us the opportunity to put our arms around the very best people and bring them together to create a company.” Ms Roberts, who is also chair of drug discovery at the University of Birmingham, is clear that, had it not been for Astra’s decision to leave the site, her business, ApconiX might never have been born. The availability of a deep talent pool, due to the number who decided not to move to Cambridge, was also crucial to her ability to make the business work, she pointed out. ApconiX, which tests drugs at the pre-clinical stage to ensure they are safe, has expanded from its three founding partners to a workforce of 23.
One floor up another Astra alumnus, Steve McConchie, acknowledges that, but for the chance of the company’s relocation, he, too, would probably have ended his career at Astra, where he had worked for 25 years. He co-founded Aptus Clinical, which designs and runs clinical trials in areas such as oncology and rare diseases. “If you asked us before we started out ‘would we be here five years on, with 50 people working for us?’, the answer was probably not. I think we all saw ourselves as Big Pharma people,” Dr McConchie said.
Chris Doherty, Alderley Park’s managing director, said that alongside Astra’s own determination that the site should continue to be a centre for life sciences and biotech, the choice of a sympathetic developer had been crucial. The property group Bruntwood has spent the past five years overseeing and funding the further development of the site. In October last year the site became part of Bruntwood SciTech, a 50:50 joint venture between Bruntwood and Legal & General, which is developing a UK network of linked science and technology sites. However, Alderley’s successful second life contrasts with what has happened at other sites after their anchor pharma companies quit, Mr Doherty suggested. At Horsham in West Sussex, formerly a research and development centre for Novartis, plans are under way to build business premises and homes, while at Terlings Park, once owned by global healthcare leader MSD, housing has replaced the laboratories. “This is happening everywhere, this kind of shrinking. And not many have been successfully brought back,” Mr Doherty said, describing Alderley as “the most successful regeneration of a pharma site in the country”.