Temperatures outside Nomura bank in London climbed into the high summertime registers as six biotech executives in dark suits filed into windowless rooms. The men were immediately segregated into two groups and told they had two days to turn a university spin-out into a billion dollar public company. Oh, and the two groups were competing against each other in a biotech "wargame," and would be observed and analyzed by industry experts.
In one room, the executives from the United States took their seats: Bruce Carter, CEO of Zymogenetics; Clive Meanwell, CEO of the Medicines Company; and Tim Rink, retired CEO of Aurora Biosciences Corporation. Sequestered away in another corner of the bank, their British counterparts congregated: Nigel Burns, Chairman of Cell Medica; Eliot Forster, CEO of Solace Pharma; and Neill MacKenzie, co-founder of Oxford BioMedica.
Sponsored by the Bioscience Futures Forum, a government-launched organization run by industry leaders, the wargame was held July 14th and 15th in the hopes of identifying why the UK biotech sector lags significantly behind its US counterpart. "The UK biotech industry has never delivered a fully-integrated one-billion dollar company," says Steve Chisnall, director of the wargame and chief operating officer of Simulstrat, the strategy team from King's College London who designed and ran the game.
Each team began with the same fictitious drug, a treatment for solid tumors showing potent results in breast cancer. Differences began when the teams appealed to venture capitalists from their own country for phase I funding. "The US team was tackling it in a very ambitious, confident, and strategic way," recalls Chisnall. "The UK team was more hesitant…. You didn't get the impression they really believed they could deliver the drug." Though precise figures are not yet available, the US received about double the investment of the UK team after both phase I and phase II pitches, says Chisnall.
The investment difference was so dramatic that the UK team accused organizers of giving them different drug data from the Americans. "I had to stand up and say, 'I'm sorry. You're using the same data,'" recalls Chisnall. The difference was in the pitches and the response of respective investors. At one point, fearing that hesitant UK investors were holding the British team back, Chisnall and his team allowed the British officers to appeal to US investors. But the results didn't change.
At the beginning of the second day, each team learned its lead drug candidate didn't fare well in phase II trials. "It's probably fair to say the US team was more proactive in managing the impact of these bad results," says Chisnall. The US team quickly prepared a statement and gave a press conference. "We said that trying to cure breast cancer is difficult, results in animal studies were highly promising, but this study design was flawed," says Meanwell, who played the chief financial officer of the American team (chosen because he was the only one of the three who knew how to use an Excel spreadsheet). The British team, who did not have time for a press conference, presented its data later to its company's board. "Of course we were worried about the reaction of board," says Forster, CFO of the British team. "It was a significant step backward of potential value of company."
The game never went as far as phase IV, says Chisnall, "because we had learned enough." The UK team wasn't going to become a billion dollar company; the US team was.
Analysis of the game is ongoing and will be compiled into a handful of recommendations delivered straight to government and industry heads. Early results suggest the UK company's reduced development was the result of limited management ambition, a restricted market for biotech products, and the failure of AIM, the London Stock Exchange's market for growing companies, to support new biotechs.
"We took a vote at the end of the game," says Chisnall. "We said to everyone there, 'Based on your experience in the last two days, do you think the future of the UK biotech as a strategic sector is at risk?'". The overwhelming majority voted yes.