One raven does not a winter make

by Bradley Hardiman

Recently, news broke that Circassia, an Oxford-based biotech company, had an unsuccessful phase III trial in their lead allergy-alleviating product. The company’s share price fell (no surprise) and reports circulated, as they inevitably do, predicting the imminent collapse of the UK biotech sector.

Just as raven does not signal the arrival of winter — anyone who has experienced a UK winter might well argue that winter never actually ends — one phase III failure does not signal sector collapse.

There is no schadenfreude in the news that a spin-out from the ‘other place’ has experienced a setback. You see, this development is just that, a setback. It does not signal the beginning of the end for Circassia nor the UK biotech sector as a whole. We are all in this industry together for the benefit of everyone. A recent Oxford and Cambridge joint investor event in London demonstrated this with aplomb.

The fact is, the odds of getting a drug to market are low, yet biotech companies are funded on the expectation of success. Any setback runs the risk of a knee-jerk reaction from the market and the wheels come off. Not everything we or our companies do is a complete success. Technologies fail. Companies experience difficulties. That’s reality.

From a Cambridge perspective (I am sure other clusters feel the same way), we see a thriving life science sector. We are consistently investing more and more each year, and our portfolio companies are themselves raising more money than ever. Our recent exits from BlueGnome, Horizon Discovery, Astex, X01 and Lumora show that money can be made from life science investments. The sale of Vocal IQ, reportedly to Apple, and the recent acquisition of Cambridge CMOS Sensors by ams show that other sectors are thriving as well.

So let’s not retrench from the setback suffered by Circassia. There will be failures in clinical trials; this is one of the few certainties in the biotech sector. The real trick for the success and sustainability of our industry is to fund companies to the extent that they can work through setbacks and continue on with other programmes. This is something the US does well and something we need to do more of in the UK and the rest of Europe.

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