Can MedCity make London and the SE a global life science powerhouse?

In April this year, the Mayor of London launched MedCity, a partnership between UCLPartners, King’s Health Partners, Imperial College AHSC, Oxford, Cambridge and the Greater London Authority, to establish London and the Greater South East as a world-leading cluster for life sciences.

The vision over the next 20 years is for MedCity to position London and the greater south east of England as a world leading, interconnected region for life science research, development, manufacturing and commercialisation.

We caught up with Dr Eliot Forster, CEO of Creabilis Therapeutics and the Executive Chair of MedCity to talk us through the last couple of months progress since the launch.


B&M: First of all congratulations on your appointment as the Executive Chair of MedCity.  How did the appointment come about?

EF: We need to go back a little bit. MedCity is a joint collaboration between the Greater London Assembly (GLA), the Mayor’s office, and the three London based AHSC in the first instance; so King’s, Imperial and UCL. I was introduced to the process through Kings, because of a long term relationship as part of my previous employer when I was at Pfizer.  That introduction was made, and how it came about was they needed an independent from each of those organisations with some industrial knowledge to help them figure out how to drive economic growth out of all the great work that was coming out of London and the greater South East. There had been some analysis undertaken and I came in and helped them with that analysis. They then kindly invited me to act as an interim Chairman to help with the launch of MedCity, which I did, and subsequently to that they asked if I would do it on a permanent basis.  And that’s what I’m doing as the Executive Chairman.

B&M: What are your immediate responsibilities there?

EF: What we’re doing in the first instance is staffing up MedCity and closing up financing.  We’ve been lucky enough to receive initial seed financing from the Mayor’s office, from the GLA and from HESFE, the higher education fund for England.  So it’s sealing that investment which is just in the bureaucracy stage now.  As soon as that is done then we’ll be staffing up MedCity with its core team, but it will be a very small team responsible for co-ordinating the efforts of others predominantly.  The MedCity model is one of partnership, and the core team will be responsible for making those partnerships work across the key aspects of MedCity’s activity.

Beyond that, as the Chairman I will run a board of directors, so the occasional board meeting, and then some public facing responsiblities. So in the first instance what we’ve been doing is just working a few press lines that are going through.  In fact, most recently in the Telegraph just this morning was an article on MedCity and investment in Imperial College at White City. So really just getting the thing rolling forward. It’s a five year plan so we’ve got to make sure that we lay the correct foundations now in terms of operation protocols, the principles that we adopt, when we speak and when we don’t. The advisory board is critical to our success through its ability to give us feedback as to what’s happening and give direction as to what they believe we should be doing in order to maximise the economic value of the lifetime’s activity.  And of course acting as ambassadors for MedCity. We’ve got some fantastic advisors.

B&M: It reads like the Who’s Who of the UK bioscience industry which is incredible. Are you likely to add to that list?

EF: We’ve been very lucky with the support and we’re delighted with it. Certainly the initial discussions from the first advisor board meeting it was pretty clear we’d need to continue to expand our membership and make sure that the members are reflective of our operational and strategic goals.

B&M: You mentioned the immediate goals, staffing and organisations. Am I right also in saying you had your first advisory committee meeting a couple of weeks ago? How did that go?

EF: Yes we did, and they re-affirmed our direction. They had to do some bureaucratic bits and pieces so adopting the articles and adopting their own terms of reference and so on. But more important than that was the first step in the alignment across the areas which will resonate with the industry, which are quite diverse. We span upwards to Oxford through Cambridge and along the coast and everything in between. But we also have real important partnerships with the Cardiff hub and the Northern Health Science Alliance which was launched just a few weeks ago. So we’ve got that geographic aspect, and all those institutions that sit within there, to collectively navigate and support where we can. In addition to that we’ve deliberately set out to bring together elements of life sciences that are not natural bedfellows in the first instance.

So we’ve got the academic community, we’ve also got the NHS, which fit together well.  We’ve got industry which again naturally fit into this dynamic, but we’ve then we’ve also brought into that the charitable sector.  We’re actively working in this network with the government sector and then working with trade organisations and so on. So the idea was really to be thinking about the future of life sciences rather than life sciences past which is why we do simple things like make sure that we launched at Hammersmith at the imaging organisation rather than going to Fleming Lab. It was a great discovery but that was life sciences past, this is all about anticipating what needs are going to be and what those alignments in order to innovate will be in the future.

We’ve defined life sciences very broadly. We’re inviting pharma, medtech diagnostics, but also digital tech or digital health. Digital Health is a very important component in what we are going to do in MedCity. In fact probably our first focus will be in digital health space and bringing that to bear in the life sciences market.  We believe that all of these elements are going to need to be integrated to innovate our way around health needs.

B&M: MedCity is a collaboration between the Mayor of London and the Capital’s three Academic Health Science Centres - Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre, King’s Health Partners and UCL Partners. But how do you see it fitting in across existing organisations across the Golden Triangle?

EF: The intent of MedCity is not to be a central portal or a management organisation; its real intent is to be a catalyst.  It’s intent is to create a new channel, but it is only one of many new channels that exist in terms of communication in the life science industry and really what we’d like to do is foster more and more work. If we hear about things that are going on and they were new, then we’re absolutely delighted, because we want more and more activities to go on in life sciences.  In the greater South East in the first instance but clearly across the UK ultimately.  So I think that’s one thing. We are however thinking about how we connect. If you narrow all the way down to London, there’s an attractiveness of the eastern corridor with where the Crick Institute will be, where the Wellcome Trust is.  Clearly UCLH is on there and a number of other companies that are relatively low profile but are emerging along that arena, clearly it’s got very good connectivity  into Oxford and Cambridge by road and rail in particular. So there is some thinking beginning to evolve there and maybe that could act as a front door.  But equally we’re heading out next month, in July, to Cambridge, to host some meetings there.  We will be doing the same things in Oxford, and hoping to pick up some of the coastal community as well.  We really should not ignore, they’re very important in this whole area.

B&M: At the moment is MedCity based out of the Wellcome Trust, is that its holding bay at the moment?

EF: Exactly, we have a temporary accommodation.  Actually we’re co-located with The Crick Institute, which makes some really nice synergies.  And clearly The Gibbs Building is a great place to meet people and again centrally located on that eastern corridor.  We’re in the midst of thinking about and looking for more permanent places; figuring out how the place would reflect the intent.

B&M: Did much influence come from the lessons learned from TechCity, or has it been completely separate and the elements you’re driving on MedCity are wholly different?

EF: Well clearly a different industry but no, the philosophy is very similar.  Certainly from the GLA perspective, the success of TechCity was something they wish to rekindle through MedCity.  It’s no co-incidence that the name is similar.  But it’s much more than the name, it really is about a hub philosophy.  It’s about creating a platform on which the industries can thrive.  That’s in terms of policy, it’s in terms of managing the environment as much as it can be, encouraging investment and so on.  All of those elements of TechCity we’re hoping to mimic in MedCity in the same sort of way.  In fact we have reasonable connectivity with the TechCity group.

B&M: You mentioned the GLA. Kit Malthouse is obviously very much involved and is a driving force behind the endeavour.

EF:  My impression would be that he sees the opportunity first and foremost for creating new business, growing the economy and with that creating new jobs. But I can’t help but notice that he really enthuses about biotech, medtech, and the life-sciences in general. He certainly has insights into it which you wouldn’t expect from a generalist, you would more expect from a specialist. My observation is that he is enthusiastic about this.

B&M: There’s clearly a five year plan here, but what do you see as the greatest challenge to achieving what you’re setting out? 

EF:  I think one of the challenges that’s clear for us is being able to articulate what the offer is from the life sciences community across the greater South East.  I think that’s simply a case of learning, growing of the understanding of what’s available and communication.  The biggest gap, and I think this is very relevant is in terms of investment.  None of these things will come to fruition in the way they could unless we have a step change in the scale and the nature of investment in the life sciences in the greater southeast and the UK in general.  And certainly our medium term ambition, and we think it is the biggest challenge for us, is focussing the attention of the financial community of London to life sciences and saying there is opportunity here not just for wealth creation but to deal with the maturation of our society as a whole; the challenges of ageing disease, degenerative CNS diseases, degenerative joint diseases, the challenges of new forms of infection.

As I say I think investment is the key, for me and for us, that’s the biggest challenge.  It’s really about getting a fraction of 1% of all of the churn that goes on through the city; for me that would be transformational.

B&M: That strikes itself to me as being one of the key contributors to success in the immediate term - engaging with the investor community and leveraging their capital?

EF: Exactly, and re-educating them, making sure that on a human level the investors, fund managers, understand more about it.  I think we’re guilty as an industry of not bothering to translate other than to prescribers and frankly we need to do better at it.


This article was featured in the June edition of Drugs & Dealers, Biotech and Money’s exclusive magazine.To get access to 10 other executive interviews like this one and feature articles, download for free the magazine.

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