How the growth of CROs and cloud labs will drive life science SMEs in the UK

Scientific innovation is an expensive, resource-intensive and long-term pursuit where the chances of eventually arriving at a commercially viable solution are far from given.

This, as I have written before, complicates the financing environment and creates a demand for new financing tools, as well as a need for patient investors.

But two growing trends in more practical solutions hold exciting potential for dramatically reducing the time, labor and capital costs required for successful drug discovery and treatment.

What were once fully integrated drug discovery models are becoming partially or fully outsourced.

Contract Research Organizations (CROs) are not a new phenomenon, but their use has been growing steadily in the UK over the past few years.

Essentially, they offer laboratory services, drug discovery expertise and services and assays across a range of full-service carriers for individual niche services.

Using a CRO allows teams to quickly launch and scale a discovery process without the need to own or hire lab space or technicians. It is worth considering that 42% of biotech SMEs have fewer than five employees.

The UK Drug Discovery Catapult (MDC), which is based in Alderley Park, now has a virtual R&D platform that connects SMEs with one of 22 CRO partners to drive growth.

But CROs also provide services to larger pharma operators, either because of existing capacity that is already in use or as part of a desire to adopt more economical operating models.

And CROs offer more than just outsourced, flexible capacity; many are themselves highly innovative life science businesses that can play an important role in generating new and more predictive research models and tests.

The second and more future-oriented trend is the emergence of so-called cloud laboratories. Here, scientists carry out their own wet lab experiments, but remotely with a team of robots overseen by some human lab workers doing the work – sometimes hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away.

Its representatives claim it offers greater accuracy and repeatability, with robots executing precise lines of code the same way, every time. And they can do it around the clock, boosting productivity.

Choosing between the options will likely come down to individual preferences and circumstances. CROs, for example, can also help design studies, while you have to do this for your robots in cloud labs. And the technology behind cloud labs has a lot of work to do before it can be applied across all CRO areas.

Of course, many CROs are natural vehicles for cloud labs and are looking to invest in these capabilities as the market grows.

For now, this is largely a US phenomenon, but the opportunities in the UK, with its world-class science infrastructure and $1 trillion technology industry, second only to the US and China, are obvious. The fact that Britain’s strength in these sectors is spread across several cities – not just London, but also Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Leeds – adds to its potential.

Meanwhile, the UK’s growing and vibrant CRO ecosystem continues to expand with many scientists attracted to work in revenue-generating businesses that deliver highly innovative work. This encourages greater collaboration between individual innovation areas across the country, ensuring that the UK takes advantage of its relatively compact geography to become something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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