Geoff Davison is the CEO of Bionow, a leading biomedical and life science membership organization based in Northern England. Bionow specializes in helping companies in the life science sector grow their business through investments and collaborations.
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In this episode of the Marketing Science Podcast, we discuss life science industry trends and outlook for 2021. We highlight the contributions made by life science organizations during COVID-19, give insights into life science collaboration and investment trends, and discuss the growth of the sector in the North of England.
What opportunities does Bionow provide to member organizations to help further their success in the life science sector?
Our objective is to connect people and drive innovation within the biomedical and life science sector, specifically for organizations across the North of England. We focus on sub-sectors like antimicrobial resistance, oncology, precision medicine and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
We have a wide range of events that aim to make introductions so individuals can collaborate and do business together. We also have more general events to support life science companies in raising investments and financial capital.
The Bionow team provides advice and makes targeted introductions between members and others in our network. We also provide a platform for members to promote new products and services, or to raise their company’s profile through things like webinars or podcasts. There are a lot of ways for members to take advantage of being part of the Bionow network.
Usually, we have about 400 guests at a resort in Cheshire, but that won’t be able to happen this year. The upcoming event will be on the 4th of February, 2021 and it will be in the form of a fully interactive digital awards ceremony.
We felt it was very important to continue to run the event this year, particularly to recognize the massive contributions and innovations in the life science sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have 11 different award categories, including a special ‘Response to COVID-19’ award, so there is something for everyone, both COVID and non-COVID related.
What does a virtual awards ceremony look like in comparison to a live, in-person event?
It definitely differs from in-person events, where we have lots of guests in black tie, at a fancy venue. But we were keen to bring the benefits of digital platforms like Zoom to include a networking aspect for the awards.
We are using a platform called Remo, an online platform that allows up to 500 guests to attend the event and gives guests the ability to virtually move around to different tables across 10 different ‘floors’. Everyone will then be shifted to a virtual room with a stage where the main awards ceremony will take place.
Networking isn’t always possible when you are at an awards event - you can’t move from table to table as easily as you will be able to through the online networking platform. We hope that this event serves as an opportunity to drive networking and collaboration. It should be a fun evening, celebrating a lot of worthy organizations in the life science sector.
Who are some of the notable winners of past Bionow awards?
F2G, an antifungal firm located in Eccles, won an award last year for the development of a novel antifungal agent. They also previously won awards for their fundraising activities - they have raised millions to fund their development over the years from an impressive global investor base.
Another winner was Sky Medical Technologies, who developed a Geko device that can stop the formation of DVT. They said that winning the award significantly helped them to identify new distributors for their technology and helped them get it to new markets.
Award winners are promoted through the press and through various types of content. Because our awards are virtual this year, everything will also be recorded, so we will be able to use video to raise the profiles of our winners even further.
What tips would you give to people to encourage them to get the most out of attending virtual events?
It’s important to go into a virtual event with the right attitude. Don’t be afraid to engage and ask questions. Keep in mind that virtual events can offer a lot of benefits - there might be someone you can connect with who can use your service or product, or an individual might have the expertise, product or service that you need.
Bionow also ran Virtual Coffee Breaks this year, which served as a chance to catch up with fellow Bionow members. They have served as a great support structure for members and allowed members to share tips on topics like how to open a lab during lockdown, where to buy certain supplies, etc.
It’s shown how helpful these online networking and virtual chats can be.
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How important is collaboration across life science organizations, particularly throughout 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic?
"COVID-19 has made it more difficult to collaborate and connect, but it’s also more important than ever."
The leading COVID vaccines were developed through collaborations between Oxford University and AstraZeneca, and BioNTech and Pfizer. There are also many other organizations supporting and contributing to the vaccine rollout.
The development of everything from fill/finish, minus 80 freezers and even the packaging needed to get the vaccines to the patients have all been driven by collaboration in the life science sector.
At Bionow, we believe it is crucial to bring people together to share ideas, to get more intellectual diversity and to get a wider range of skills working together on a challenge.
Can you share any stories from Bionow’s member organizations about their work during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our members like Cobra Biologics and Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies have both been working with the UK Vaccines Task Force, a group established to work on the logistics of getting the vaccine manufactured and delivered to patients.
We also worked with the Medicines Discovery Catapult, who set up the Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park to conduct COVID tests. Again, a massive logistical challenge to develop a lab to do mass testing in such a short space of time.
The response from our members was amazing during this time. Organizations loaned the Lighthouse Lab incredibly expensive equipment and many volunteered at the lab to help out. It’s been amazing what the sector has done and how organizations have stepped up during this pandemic.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected financing and investment in the life science sector this year?
We just virtually hosted our annual BioCap conference. This event is specifically focused on attracting life science investment into the North of England.
This year, we attracted a lot of investors from a much wider geography than we normally do. The event had a very positive vibe and investors were still looking to make deals, and many of our member companies have been closing funding rounds, despite the pandemic.
Moving the BioCap event online actually helped us attract more investors and groups that wouldn’t have been able to attend a physical event. Many are also keen to invest due to the contributions from the life science sector throughout the pandemic.
The challenges we have seen are around virtually forming new relationships, where investors were not already familiar with a company. Due diligence is harder when you can’t physically visit a lab or building. But we have still heard of new deals being closed where investors use platforms like Zoom to do their due diligence.
The life science sector has been highlighted through the COVID-19 pandemic and more people are becoming aware of the value of these organizations. I think that will bring even greater investments for the sector in 2021.
Why has the North of England grown into a leading life science location?
The North of England is a very well-connected ecosystem with lots of innovative life science companies with highly skilled employees. Relatively low facilities and staffing costs also mean that investments made here will go further than in other places.
Investors previously focused on Oxford, Cambridge and London, but those areas have become overheated, deals are harder to find and valuations are higher. With so much competition, investors will naturally look elsewhere.
There are also organizations like Epidarex, which are focused on bringing big funds out of the golden triangle to fund sub-clusters of science, with a number of those being based in the North of England.
We also have a great university base in the North, with great R&D and talent being generated from these universities.
Can you talk about the work that Bionow does with universities based in the North of England?
The pandemic meant that we were unable to do many of the talks and events that we usually do with universities, so we wanted to host a digital event. The Bionow Virtual Career Fair allowed us to reach a wider audience of around 20 different universities.
Over the 3-day event, we had a series of company presentations, themed into different sub-sectors. Students learned about the opportunities available in life science companies, the type of responsibilities they might have in various roles, and the career development opportunities they could expect.
We had around 900 students, who heard from over 40 different companies, numbers which wouldn’t have been possible at a physical event. It was very successful and the virtual format worked very well.
Read: Virtual Events for Science and Engineering
I was also blown away by the engagement of the students during the event. They were really active on the digital event platform, asked a lot of questions and really engaged with the speakers and with each other.
Are there any other success stories from your member organizations that you would like to highlight?
QIAGEN in Manchester is a company that we have worked with since our founding. They were originally a spin-out of AstraZeneca. They have continued to grow and expand their business in Manchester and recently announced a big investment to develop Citylabs 2.0, a new hub for companies working in MedTech, digital health, genomics, precision medicine and diagnostics.
QuantuMDx is a successful diagnostics business, developing a point-of-care diagnostic platform. They moved to Newcastle from London, showing how the North can attract new life science companies. They have been very successful in raising funds and are about to launch a COVID diagnostic on the market.
The other one that comes to mind is Advanced Medical Solutions. They are a wound care company who were organically grown, employ hundreds of people, and are a multinational trading company.
How important are the companies that own and set up developments like City Labs in Manchester and Alderley Park in Newcastle?
It’s so important to have the right facilities in the right locations. Bruntwood SciTech owns Alderley Park in Newcastle, City Labs in Manchester, and recently acquired Sciontec in Liverpool. There is also the Nexus in Leeds, a part of the University of Leeds. These locations are the real nucleus for the life science sector across the North of England.
They serve as a catalyst for growth and encourage collaboration between different companies in the sector. They bring people together and enhance business results even further.
We also have a presence at many of these hubs. We have hot desks or even small offices at most of them because we understand the importance of these hubs and recognize that these are the locations we need to be at to help our member organizations grow and to better understand what our members are working towards.
MIDAS played an instrumental role in helping AZoNetwork move to Manchester. What role does MIDAS play in terms of inward direct investment into the Life Sciences?
MIDAS is a leading inward investment promotion agency for Manchester, and have helped many businesses relocate or expand in Greater Manchester. They have been one of Bionow’s members since we started. We have a range of schemes with them, where we offer free membership for those companies considering the move to Manchester.
It’s crucial that cities like Manchester attract new expertise, new business and new investments. MIDAS does a great job at that, even through challenging times like throughout the pandemic and with the challenges of Brexit.
What does the future of the life sciences sector in the UK look like over the next 3 - 5 years?
I’m an optimist about what the future will look like. With the changes that Brexit will bring, there are challenges to overcome, but the fundamentals are strong. We have a highly-skilled workforce, great research and facilities, and increasing access to financial capital.
Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic having highlighted the importance of the biomedical and life science sector, our position has been further enhanced in the eyes of the public, policymakers and the government. The future is rosy, and I look forward to the future and the continued growth of the sector.
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