Aims and objectives
At the beginning of the new millennium, the mapping of the human genome promised to unlock not just the human code for life, but much, much more.
It opened up the prospect of thousands of new drugs for previously untreatable diseases; and of the ability to replace faulty genes, thereby short-circuiting diseases at source. In both Europe and the USA, a rash of genomics firms – the latest generation of biotechnology firms – were set up to exploit the new information that would become available, and investors, seeing potential goldmines ahead, were quick to put their money in. However since then, the success of firms in commercialising the new science has been extremely patchy, and the biotech bubble has burst, in much the same way as the dotcom bubble before it.
It was against this background that the ESRC awarded a one-year research grant to Steve Casper. His brief was to study the ways in which UK firms were commercialising genomics research – and how their methods and successes compared with firms in other countries.
In particular, Dr Casper was keen to compare UK genomics firms with their counterparts in Munich, Germany – on which he had already conducted prior research – and in Boston, Massachusetts. (He had formed links with Professor Fiona Murray at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was conducting related research on Building A Biomedical Enterprise, funded by the Cambridge-MIT Institute.)
Between September 2001 and March 2003, Steve Casper worked with Anastasios Karamanos (CBR) and Professor Murray on these two projects.
The research involved interviews with chief executives and founders of genomics firms. It also involved the development of a database of statistics about the firms and about the scientists who worked for them, so that the research team could analyse the career histories and research performance of scientists working in these firms.
They found notable differences between the labour markets in Munich and Cambridge. In Munich, for example, it appears that very few scientists have previous experience of the industry when they move to a job in a biotech firm. It is usual for biotech staff to stay in one role for a long time, and not to move around very much, and there is therefore not much career flexibility for them. In Cambridge, by contrast, scientists are far more likely to have had previous jobs and experience in industry before moving to their current job. In particular, senior scientists tended to have moved to the biotech sector from large pharmaceutical firms.
In Boston, there are also flexible labour markets, but there, scientists appear to make career moves from one biotech firm to another. There, it is also apparent that ‘technical communities’ linking scientists with industry are rather stronger than the communities linking scientists with academic research labs.
It seems likely, says Dr Casper, that the differing success rate of the three clusters is caused by these differences in their labour markets. The researchers measured the ‘pipelines’ of new drugs being developed by the companies. This showed that the companies in Massachussetts have been the most successful, followed by Cambridge firms – and those clustered in Munich the least successful – in commercialising new therapeutic products.
Says Dr Casper, “The Cambridge and Massachusetts labour markets feature scientists who have previous experience of commercialising science, and firms in these two areas recruit them specifically to help develop their products. By contrast, the firms in Munich are staffed primarily with junior scientists with no commercial experience. We think that their lack of success in commercialising products follows.”
Further work is now being done by Dr Casper to see how the labour markets in these three areas develop over time, with the aim of investigating how these biotech clusters develop, and in particular, what role the universities play in driving their growth.
The ‘Building the Biomedical Enterprise’ project combined research with development of a Master’s course on this subject.This is taught at both the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and at the University of Cambridge, as part of the Cambridge-MIT Institute sponsored Masters programme in Bioscience Enterprise.