Biotech Counts in Cambridge

After working as a research fellow for nearly seven years at the University of California, San Francisco, Alex Duncan wanted to settle down and raise a family. Rather than stay in the United States, he decided to put down roots in Cambridge, England. The decision wasn't difficult, since both he and his wife were from the United Kingdom, and he had done graduate work at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. "Cambridge is a vibrant university town with a

May 27, 2002
Ted Agres
After working as a research fellow for nearly seven years at the University of California, San Francisco, Alex Duncan wanted to settle down and raise a family. Rather than stay in the United States, he decided to put down roots in Cambridge, England. The decision wasn't difficult, since both he and his wife were from the United Kingdom, and he had done graduate work at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

"Cambridge is a vibrant university town with an academic atmosphere that's very collegial," says Duncan, vice president for drug discovery at Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT), a spin-off company founded 12 years ago using MRC research. "It's a beautiful place to live with lots of bright, interesting people around--not just scientists, but people in economics, business, history, and the arts. The area is just booming."

Bursting at the seams might be a more apt description. Cambridge is a biotechnology powerhouse where centuries of academic excellence--dating from before Sir Isaac Newton--come face to face with the largest and fastest growing concentration of life sciences companies and research institutions in Britain. "Cambridge has a creative, inventive environment, especially in the biosciences, because of its extremely strong academic background," says Tony Talbot, chief executive of Iceni BioDiscovery, a 13-person start-up company developing cell transplantation therapies for diabetes and other diseases. "It attracts very high-quality, creative people. It's just the right location for us."

Also known as "Silicon Fen" in comparison to Silicon Valley, the region houses 175 biotech companies, employing 5,000 scientists and researchers. Another 5,000 people work at 200 other companies that provide support facilities and services exclusively to biotech, according to Jeff Solomon, chief executive of Eastern Region Biotech Initiative (ERBI), the area's biotech trade association.

After Cambridge, the next major UK biotech hub is Oxford, hosting about 120 biotech companies, followed by London with 70. Cambridge is also home to more than 1,500 other high-tech companies, providing abundant opportunities for research and employment networking.

Genetic Goods

Today, more than one-third of Cambridge biotechs develop biopharmaceuticals. Another 15% produce instruments for biomedical, biotech, and healthcare applications. "Cambridge has world-class research," says Mark P. Carthy of Oxford Bioscience Partners, a life sciences venture capital firm in Boston with investment activities in Cambridge. "[The region has] made great strides in getting companies off the ground," he says.

Nearly two-thirds of Cambridge biotech companies employ fewer than 50 workers, according to an ERBI survey, and 22% employ more than 100 workers. Big Pharma describes most of these monoliths: GlaxoSmithKline, Merck Sharpe & Dohme, and AstraZeneca operate major research facilities and employ thousands of scientists. Twenty percent of biotech companies have a foreign parent, including Amgen, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Genzyme, and Incyte Genomics.

The Cambridge region also accommodates multiple large, basic-research institutes that receive hundreds of millions of pounds sterling in government grants: the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which pioneered research for the international Human Genome Project; the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology; the Babraham Institute; and the European Bioinformatics Institute, an outstation of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.

One might say that life science research excellence runs in the Cambridge DNA. After all, it was here that Francis Crick and James Watson unlocked the double helical structure of DNA in 1953. Since the 1950s, Cambridge University has launched 10 Nobel laureates. Despite the presence of names identified with dramatic advances in medical science, the university only recently began to emphasize commercialization of research results. "Universities have been encouraged [by the UK government] to be entrepreneurial, to look at ways of capitalizing on the huge intellectual value in them," says David Secher, director of the technology transfer office for Cambridge University's research services division.

Last year the university took in royalties of only slightly more than £1 million and spun off four biotech-related companies, its best result to date but a relatively minor accomplishment compared with US universities, which receive $4 million (US) on average in licensing revenue, according to a study by the Association of University Technology Managers.1 "Cambridge, being a long-standing university town, has the challenge of creating an entrepreneurial, commercial environment alongside its pure academic research environment," says Crispin Kirkman, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, the UK's biotech trade association. "The university still loves pure research. It's not quite sure how best to support the development of commercial applications."

The High-Pay Puzzle

The biotech employment market in Cambridge bedevils the companies but blesses job seekers. Here's why: The number of biotech companies has doubled between 1995 and 2000. This new growth combined with company expansion generates abundant job opportunities. Even ordinary geniuses can be discriminating about where they go and how much they earn. "When we fill our advertised vacancies, we still will have more slots to fill," says CAT's Duncan. The company plans to hire 40 more people by September, bringing its numbers to 310. But competition for talented employees will be fierce. "There are a lot of smaller companies that are growing quickly," he explains. "We are all competing with each other for the same pool of high-quality people."

In particular short supply are scientists skilled in high-throughput screening, bioinformatics, manufacturing quality control in biologics, and medicinal chemists. Technicians are perennially in sharp demand. As a result, unemployment for scientists is virtually nonexistent. "It's just as long as it takes them to go from one job to another," says ERBI's Solomon. It's not surprising that employment agreements customarily require senior employees to give six months' notice before leaving.

In this classic case of supply and demand, salaries have been driven up an average of 10% to 20% more than expected, making recruiting and retaining top scientists more difficult, especially for midsize companies, says Mark Abbersteen, head of life sciences recruitment for IGC, a Cambridge-based recruiting company.

Salaries vary based not only according to the size of the company but also according to its location: companies near the city center pay more, while those farther out pay less. A bench scientist with a PhD and three to five years of experience can expect to earn from £30,000 to £50,000, whereas a technician with a degree might fetch from £20,000 to £25,000.

While the hot job market has boosted salaries and employment, it has also triggered a housing shortage and inflated the cost of living in this city of 120,000 people. Some Cambridge houses cost nearly as much as the same residences in London. "When people come from outside, they're shocked at the housing prices," Duncan says. A two-to-five-bedroom, single-family Victorian home in the city can cost from £200,000 to £500,000. Most new arrivals end up looking in the villages 10 to 25 miles outside Cambridge where housing costs can fall by half. Developers taking a clue from this trend are following the outward migration by constructing new science parks and biotech centers in these outlying areas.

As with other biotech hotspots experiencing growing pains, people in Cambridge are also concerned about state-run school quality, classroom overcrowding, and shortages of openings in top-notch privately owned schools. Highways, commuter rails, and bus lines are becoming more clogged as workers journey to and from lab clusters. The larger centers, such as Granta Park, eight miles south of the city, and Cambridge Science Park, on the northern edge of town, attract thousands of workers, creating traffic bottlenecks. Still, when compared with congestion in London and in major US biotech centers, the traffic in Cambridge "is only a joke," Solomon says.

The UK government for years has turned its attention, and financial assistance, to areas considered less fortunate than Cambridge. Lord Sainsbury, UK's minister of science and innovation, said in an April address to Cambridge business leaders that the government should pay more attention to the area's growth needs, especially for transportation. He offered no specific solutions or commitment of funds.

Though the population growth outpaces the expansion in services, nearly all observers remain upbeat about the future of Cambridge as a biotechnology center. "There is still plenty of venture capital around" to fuel company formation, says Rob Arnold in the Cambridge office of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. But the venture capitalists are becoming choosier; during the first half of 2002, they put their money into more established companies, making it harder for smaller companies to raise funds.

Of course, a university town as renowned as Cambridge is replete with cultural and recreational opportunities, from music and theater to golf courses, rowing clubs, and horse races. "Cambridge is a great place to live and work," Duncan says. Those in the biotech community here "have the opportunity to help their companies become global leaders."

Ted Agres (tedagres@lycos.com) is a freelance writer in Washington DC
1. AUTM Licensing Survey, Fiscal Year 2000. Association of University Technology Managers, Northbrook, IL.


Cambridge: A Life Science Keystone