Wales should follow Scotland in creating a Life Sciences Board

Richard Greville calls for even more support for a Welsh economic success story

Recent investments in the Welsh life science sector are a success story that should be celebrated as a route to economic recovery for Wales. Penn Pharma undertook a £12m expansion in Tredegar last year, Johnson & Johnson’s Ortho-Clinical Diagnostic’s will open a new manufacturing plant in Pencoed next year. Meanwhile, the Bridgend-based ZooBiotic, a supplier of innovative wound care products to the healthcare industry, has recently made a series of pivotal appointments.

These developments should not be considered as the exceptions. The past few years have seen a surge in the number of medical and life science investments across Wales, to the point where there are now nearly 300 companies currently working alongside clinical academic institutions, medical charities and the Welsh Government in developing new medicines and treatments for patients across the world. Many of these companies are small, and spun out from universities to attract investment. Others are major employers, offering highly skilled and local jobs.

However, for Wales to sit back and think the job is now done would be a big mistake. The Welsh life sciences industry faces perhaps its stiffest test yet, with other parts of the UK and the rest of the world also looking to come out of recession, and preparing to increase their backing and investment in their own local life sciences sectors.

Of course, if the sector thrives, it is not just the economy that benefits. Innovations in healthcare, improved medicines, diagnostics and devices all have the potential to improve the health and wealth of our population. For example, statins are now common medicines which have been estimated to have saved almost 3,000 lives in Wales over a recent five-year period and, as a consequence, contributed over £3.5 billion to the economy.

To help make that happen, the Office of Life Sciences (OLS), part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with responsibilities for enhancing the pharmaceutical and medical sectors, is promoting use of  the NHS as a centre for innovation. The aim is to build a more integrated life sciences industry, secure greater access to finance and investment, and market UK life sciences across the world.

The relevance to Wales of this UK policy is for all to see. Just days after the OLS initiative was launched, the former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan announced phase two of the Institute of Life Science at Swansea University, with up to 650 jobs. The Welsh Government is providing £8.5 million towards the cost, with £12.8m from the European Regional Development Convergence Fund, £6.4 million from Swansea University and £1 million from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University NHS Trust.

Professor Richard Davies, vice-chancellor for Swansea University, said the initiative will benefit “the whole region and beyond” with “the resulting advances in medical practice, and through the development of a cluster of high- technology life science companies”. However, Mr Morgan appeared to accept that the commercial life sciences industry will need to be embraced if Prof Davies’ comments are to be proved right. As he put it, “The Welsh Government is keen to facilitate collaboration between business and our universities. This shows that we are not just seeking to survive this recession – we are also positioning Wales in the right place to be competitive in the upturn, when it comes.”

Wales is not devoid of groundbreaking collaborative private-public sector initiatives either. In the same week that phase two of the Institute of Life Science at Swansea University was given the green light, Cancer Research Technology, Cardiff University, together with the  global medicine developer Merck Serono announced they are combining their research power and financial muscle to progress new life-saving medicine development in Wales.

Across the UK, the pharmaceutical sector supports more than a quarter of a million people in high-value jobs, of which over 72,000 are employed directly by pharmaceutical companies. Every year the pharmaceutical industry invests £4.5 billion in research and development in the UK – a quarter of all private sector R&D investment. Worldwide, the market opportunity is close to $1 trillion. So, even though the medical sector looks prosperous in Wales, seen in a global context it is but a drop in the ocean.

Scotland appears to have recognised this obvious potential, and already has a Life Sciences Board, which enjoys the full support of the Scottish Government and includes senior industry expertise, as well as other proactive initiatives. This co-ordinated approach means that Scotland attracts 15 per cent of the UK’s medical R&D investment – consistently punching well above its population weight.

This is not to say that Wales does not have its hubs of academic excellence. We strongly support the establishment of a Cancer Research UK Centre in Wales, where researchers and support staff from the Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust, Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK will aim to increase the rate at which academic findings are translated into therapies.

In addition, several companies have been turning their attention to Wales following the ‘leap forward’ in Alzheimer’s disease research by the Medical Research Council Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics. It is these gems which should be polished and enhanced to become beacons for further public and private sector life sciences investment in Wales.

As much as possible needs to be done to give medical companies good reason to invest further in Wales. Once they are here, they often stay and set deep roots. Penn Pharma has been based in Tredegar for 20 of the 30 years it has been in existence. Its current five-year expansion programme will create 133 skilled, well-paid jobs while safeguarding the future of a further 100 jobs. But the project has been started to pave the way for a total redevelopment of the site to meet future growth demands.

Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics’ new state-of-the-art facility will include a 125,000 sq ft main building on the 10-acre site, and will open in 2010. The company’s Welsh operation, which employs 400 people, plays a critical role in the company’s supply chain around the world. The investment also shows that the necessary skills base is here.

There is also plenty of evidence of political will behind expanding the Welsh life sciences sector. Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones has acknowledged that medical companies are “creating precisely the kind of skilled jobs that the Welsh economy needs”. Small wonder they enjoy such political support – some 40 per cent of all medicines introduced in the past decade were in the Government’s top priority areas, including cancer, heart disease and mental health.

It is good that the Welsh Government recognises the importance of such jobs. The life science industry is a critical part of the knowledge economy, and key to Wales’s global competitiveness. However words and funding are not enough. Wales need to become fully involved in the ambitions of the OLS, if only to ensure that we remain competitive and attract high-skilled jobs and manufacturing investment. Further collaboration between the private and public sector will benefit the health as well as the wealth of the people of Wales.

An IWA conference Building the Welsh Health Economy is being held in Cardiff on 28 June.  The programme and booking form can be accessed here.

Dr Richard Greville is Director of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry Wales. An IWA conference Building the Welsh Health Economy is being held in Cardiff on 28 June. The programme and booking form can be accessed here.

Also within Politics and Policy