Looking for that innovation buzz

As the industry shifts from blockbuster discovery to that of personalised and translational medicine, research facilities are changing. Susan Birks reports on the move to new builds that are designed to foster open innovation

The Francis Crick Institute has been financed by a consortium of six UK scientific and academic organisations

In past decades, Big Pharma has relied on attracting the most promising researchers with signature buildings and the best-equipped labs on the site of huge manufacturing plants. In such new and expensive facilities, it was assumed that innovation would surely thrive.

But now that production has moved to cheaper regions, pipelines have dried up and getting new drugs to market is harder than ever, many of these facilities have become white elephants. Even mega mergers with the pioneering biotech sector seemed to result in innovation atrophy. Now, Big Pharma has to find new models for R&D. Where once it focused on in-house R&D, it is now looking to forge greater links and partnerships with the vibrant biotech/spin-off culture that is pushing the boundaries in areas such as personalised medicine, theranostics and cell therapy.

National governments are also adapting to the changing medicinal landscape. Their encouragement of ‘super clusters’ is aimed at attracting investment and critical mass in the new medicinal business. The result has been a flurry of new building projects and bio-parks across Europe and the US – all with a remit of supporting open innovation. London and Cambridge, in particular, have seen an influx of interest.

London’s Francis Crick Institute is a prime example. Known colloquially as ‘The Crick’, it has been financed to the tune of £650m by a consortium of six UK scientific and academic organisations – the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London (UCL), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

Location was seen as key to the success of this facility; it is close to London universities and hospitals as well as right next to Eurostar – just a two-hour train journey from Paris.

Different research disciplines will be mixed together to encourage interaction and improve transfer of knowledge and the building’s design will encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas

But successful innovation requires more than simply the right location. The facility has to work well too. When it is fully operational, the Crick will employ 1,500 staff, including 1,250 scientists. Different research disciplines will be mixed together to encourage interaction and improve transfer of knowledge and the building’s design will encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Prof. Jim Smith, MRC, described the process as ‘medium range social engineering’ – moving to scientific super clusters and mixing up group disciplines within the same lab space.

The Crick will have an operating budget in excess of £100m, but the reality is that research has to become more productive, so people will share facilities and the plan is to co-locate researchers with shared interests. ‘It will share tissue culture space, microscope rooms, cold rooms, instrument rooms, to make it more productive and cheaper,’ says Smith.

Designed by HOK along with PLP Architecture, and with a gross external floor area of a million square feet, it represents the biggest construction project in the UK at the moment. Some 170m long and 75m wide, it has 1,553 rooms in total – four floors for labs plus plant above ground, and two research floors and two plant floors below ground, including an animal facility.

Created around longitudinal and cross-sectional glass atriums, the walkways around the atriums lead into glass-partitioned labs. Largely devoid of opaque structures, the building will enable people to see (and shout across the atrium to) each other and to ‘collaborate’ in the central spaces. ‘Interaction with human beings is going to be very important to make the building work,’ says Smith.

Scheduled for completion in 2015, Smith hopes to be moving researchers in by September 2015.

A mentoring environment

Also following the open innovation model and designed to foster the cross-fertilisation of ideas is the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (SBC) biomedical campus, based on GSK’s site at Stevenage, UK. Opened for business in 2012, it currently occupies three new buildings and has medicinal projects already underway from the University of Manchester, GSK and the MRC. It is equipped for companies wanting to carry out cell therapies, neuroscience, antibody technology and much more.

CEO Martino Picardo sees its location midway between London and Cambridge as creating a ‘medical corridor’ with the Francis Crick centre 20 minutes away by train and the universities of Cambridge along the train track in the opposite direction. It has already forged links with Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University and UCL.

If we build a new incubator for start-ups right next to large pharma companies they will be able to benefit and cross-fertilise ideas

Being part of the GSK site, it is also seen as a ‘mentoring’ environment. Facilities are designed to maximise interaction between companies, and GSK, if desired. ‘If we build a new incubator for start-ups right next to large pharma companies they will be able to benefit and cross-fertilise ideas,’ says Picardo. ‘It also has a physical on-site campus feel.’

Joint funding from the Wellcome Trust, GSK, the UK Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, East of England Development Agency, and the UK Technology Strategy Board has provided £38m to build the first phase – an Incubator and Accelerator buildings.

The Hub of the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst offers meeting and conference facilities

The 4,750m2 Incubator building (40% offices and 60% labs) is designed to give spin-offs and new start-ups workspace with additional business mentoring. Small companies will need room to grow as they develop and this is the role of the Accelerator building, says Picardo. Providing 4,100m2 of workspace for up to 150 people, its modular build provides labs of different sizes that can be fitted with additional equipment.

The SBC team would like to see the site increase five-fold in size to 45,000m2. ‘Ultimately we expect to see a campus with more than 1,500 people working on site, in addition to GSK’s 2,000 on-site employees,’ Picardo says.

AstraZeneca has chosen to locate its new UK-based R&D centre and corporate headquarters on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus at the southern outskirts of the city. By 2016, the new site will house a workforce of around 2,000. The £330m investment in a new facility is part of the company’s move to create strategic global R&D centres in the UK, US and Sweden to improve pipeline productivity.

Occupying some 11 acres of the 70-acre campus, the facility will be developed jointly by AstraZeneca, Liberty Property Trust and Countryside Properties. Outline planning consent is secured for 2.3 million square feet of Biomedical R&D space. Andrew Blevins, Liberty Property Trust’s UK MD, said the campus will be more like an urban healthcare village than a conventional science park. The purpose-built site will bring together AstraZeneca’s small molecule and biologics R&D activity, opening up opportunities to exploit small and large molecule combinations. The campus will also be the new UK home for biologics research and protein engineering carried out by MedImmune, AstraZeneca’s biologics arm. MedImmune already employs around 500 people at Cambridge’s other campus, Granta Park, to the south east of the UK city.

A shared asset culture

Pfizer is also moving away from the old model of R&D facilities at key production sites, having found that signature buildings such as that at Groton, US, and the UK R&D site in Sandwich failed to foster major innovation. Looking back at the Sandwich site, it was built for the production of penicillin and saw a large R&D arm added some years later. As manufacturing moved overseas, Pfizer was left with a large, isolated R&D campus with massive combined heat and power and utilities that it no longer needed. Undeterred, Pfizer invited in PhD students to well equipped labs. With some 3,500 researchers and 27,000 to 30,000 of lab assets, it was costing a huge amount in maintenance and depreciation.

Now with sales revenue predicted to fall until at least 2016, Pfizer is cutting total R&D spend from $14.3bn in 2009 to nearer $7.2bn in 2016. R&D sites are being reduced from 15 to eight with a similar scale of reduction in researchers. Speaking at the UK’s SafeLab conference, Paul Jansenwillen, Workplace Solutions R&D Leader at Pfizer, said instead of the GSK model of inviting companies in and stimulating the discovery end, Pfizer has opted for a different approach.

‘All companies are looking to become much more entrepreneurial, more agile and more productive,’ he said. ‘Pfizer has established Centres for Technical Innovation, and for translational science it has located small 50-person collaborative labs in areas of medical excellence, such as at St Thomas’ Hospital, London and the Longwood Centre in Boston, East River, NY, and San Francisco in the US.

‘The company is not even populating these labs with just its own scientists. These are labs staffed 50-50 between Pfizer people and research institutes associated with medical centres,’ he explains.

Pfizer is moving its research to scientific super clusters ‘where the buzz already exists' to increase collaboration and partnering opportunities

Pfizer’s next stage is relocating its research units. Instead of taking PhD students and putting them in locations with great signature buildings, but far from their social networks and distanced from their peer groups, Pfizer has gone about it completely the other way round, says Jansenwillen. It is moving its research to scientific super clusters ‘where the buzz already exists’ to increase collaboration and partnering opportunities. Such sites include Cambridge, UK, and MIT in Cambridge, MA, and other clusters in San Francisco and Shanghai.

‘In the UK, we have rebranded [the R&D centre] as Neusentis. Now it has more of a feel of a research institute. We measure performance on the number of papers co-written by other institutes jointly applied for by us and other research institutes,’ he said. In the US, the plan is to move researchers from Groton to the middle of MIT in Cambridge, providing direct access to all the buzz of MIT.

Part of this plan involves building more flexible, productive space and Pfizer is not planning to throw money away on huge buildings. The first decision was to go for a ‘developer-build’. ‘Pfizer is no longer in the business of building buildings; it is too expensive... Developers can do it at half the cost,’ says Jansenwillen. Instead the company has signed a 10-year lease on the chosen building, and will convert it all into rental, making it super-flexible and halving operational costs.

Whereas in the past, regardless of occupancy, every lab had the same consumables and reagents, and all partitions, service lines and case work was fixed and could not be changed without a high capital cost, now everything will be plug and play and demountable; walls are flexible. The building has a universal utility matrix with spare gas lines so that space can be easily converted one way or the other. ‘Everything is based on the Pfizer 5ft module (safety cabinets and sinks) and is an interchangeable kit of parts, so that we can swap parts or put things back without spending capital to change it’.

By doing this Pfizer has halved cost of housing scientists in its buildings, Jansenwillen says. He adds that prefabricating labs off site and making them all the same ‘brings down the price by two thirds.’

Under utilisation of labs is also an issue being addressed. Labs used to be a place where researchers carried out their experiments; the rest of the time they were out of the lab writing up, answering e-mails and talking on the telephone, he says. Now, all Pfizer lab workers are housed in labs that also have desk space for meetings and for writing up. In making these changes, Pfizer has increased the occupancy time of its Class 2 Biology Labs to around 80%.

An increase in communication is a precursor to increasing innovation

Just as at ‘The Crick’, Pfizer also sees greater researcher interaction as key. ‘An increase in communication is a precursor to increasing innovation,’ says Jansenwillen. The company even went to the length of monitoring the communication patterns in a traditional lab to see how they compared with those in ‘flexi’ labs. This was achieved using a security tag with an IR tracking device that the researchers wear for two weeks. ‘This way, we know who is talking to whom. We can see if it is working and make decisions about changing the structure of the next phase.’

Greater interaction and networking

A social networking pattern for the old building in Sandwich, Kent with private offices and walls of concrete, revealed that despite it being in job specs to talk to the other disciplines, the researchers didn’t actually talk much at all. In the new lab, with a shared asset culture, unassigned seating, quiet library space and meeting rooms, they have measured productivity and are hitting targets that show it works better.

Jansenwillen maintains that the move to Pfizer’s latest facility in Cambridge, MA, which involved downsizing from 1,000ft2 to 300ft2 but houses the same number of people, was achieved in a very short timescale and at half the cost of the Novartis facility next door. He also boasts that Pfizer is putting 900 researchers and support staff into half the space of ‘The Crick’ but with the same amount of lab space.

Time will tell whether Big Pharma can benefit from the new R&D models and whether translational products will translate to drug profits. What is clear is that medicine pricing and reimbursement structures have changed, and therefore making R&D costs sustainable is something the sector really needs to address when looking at future facilities.

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