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Bill Castell: reflections on a career in bioscience and the future of UK innovation

9 Jun, 2015

Bill CastellEarlier this year, Wellcome Trust Chairman Sir William Castell received the BioIndustry Association’s (BIA’s) Lifetime Achievement Award, recognising his outstanding contribution to the life sciences sector. To further commemorate and celebrate this, Bill delivered the BIA’s Annual Lecture last week. Louise Wren, a Policy Adviser at the Wellcome Trust, reflects on the lecture and a growing push to transform the UK’s innovation ecosystem.

Last week, a crowd spanning industry and academia gathered at the Wellcome Trust to hear William (Bill) Castell’s 2015 BIA Annual Lecture. Bill was perfectly placed to deliver this. He’s done much to support the UK bioscience, as have the BIA, a trade association representing Britain’s biotech sector with a membership ranging from university spin outs to multinational pharma companies.

Bill spoke about the UK’s research excellence. He said he felt lucky to work in healthcare because, if you’re successful, you can “improve the lot of humankind”. He reflected on his career spent pursuing technology platforms, noting the importance of learning from mistakes and having fun along the way. And while there is much to take pride in — including Britain’s world-class science, skills development in institutes and clusters, better commissioning across the NHS, and a growing respect for the UK’s capabilities — there are a number of barriers we must address. These include access to long-term capital, developing infrastructure to support our leading science clusters, and ensuring that university Technology Transfer Offices don’t put too much focus on generating royalties.

Some of these issues are also reflected in a Trust-commissioned analysis of the UK’s innovation ecosystem, carried out last year as part of an internal review of our intellectual property policy. In late 2014, we published a briefing which gave an overview of the findings and outlined four blocks to the effective commercialisation of life sciences research. In line with Bill’s views, these range from an academic culture that doesn’t facilitate translation, Technology Transfer Offices that fail to meet the needs of both industry and academia, a lack of funding and support for concept testing, and insufficient long-term investment to underpin commercialisation.

Over the last few months, we’ve discussed and debated our review with a wide-range of stakeholders from different sectors. While the issues it describes are not new, it’s clear that there is a real desire to address them once and for all, and make the UK one of the best places in the world to deliver ‘bench to bedside’ biomedical research. We were particularly interested in the BIA’s vision for the UK life sciences sector in 2025, published in April 2015. Although it focuses on unlocking the potential of the biotech industry, its 10 recommendations have strong synergies with our own and it charts a course that could cement this country as a world-leading biomedical cluster.

Over the coming months, we’ll be working with partners, including the BIA, to identify how we might work together to unlock barriers to translation. Yesterday, Professor Stephen Caddick joined the Trust as our new Director of Innovations and will further galvanize this. We’re also very pleased to be supporting the Office for Life Sciences’ Accelerated Access Review which aims to tackle a complex piece of the puzzle: opening up the NHS to innovative medicines and technologies.

With a collaborative push, we’re hopeful that we can challenge the widely-held belief that the UK only excels at basic science and not commercialisation, and ultimately make sure that people benefit from research discoveries as quickly as possible.

For more information about the Wellcome Trust-commissioned report on the UK’s innovation ecosystem visit our policy pages.

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