By Liam Ratcliffe, head of Access Biotechnology
Biotechnology has had quite a year, playing a major role in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Particularly in the race to produce an all-important vaccine – with the first two having been developed by biotech companies Moderna and BioNtech.
But how to define biotechnology? In its broadest sense, biotechnology is applying knowledge of the science of any living organism to the discovery and development of novel products that benefit society. That can include food science, animal health, medical diagnostics, devices and therapeutics.
Biotechnology companies are deeply rooted in science and typically at the leading edge of innovation in their field – in fact more than 60% of new medicines over the past decade originated from them.
As head of Access Biotechnology – the biotech investing group within Access Industries – my team and I define biotechnology narrowly as the discovery and development of new medicines for human diseases.
I am responsible for leading the investing activities in biotech – from sourcing, managing to exiting. We also help support the work of the Blavatnik Family Foundation in medical and science philanthropy, especially activities aimed at translating basic science discoveries into future medicines at academic medical centers.
Between myself and my two colleagues, Dan Becker and Christine Borowski, we have a wealth of experience from different strands of the industry that enables us to learn from each other and stay passionate about what we do.
What are the current trends in the industry?
Biotech is a fast-moving industry dependent on keeping up with the latest research and technologies.
One of the key trends we’ve noticed at Access Biotechnology is that the digital age has transformed biotech on so many fronts. Advanced data processing, analysis and interpretation – on a massive scale – has enabled increasingly diverse technologies, such as genome sequencing and imaging (now down to the single atom level with cryogenic electron microscopy) in areas such as silico chemistry, structure-based drug design, predictive toxicology and clinical trial modelling and simulation.
In terms of trends within specific disease areas, there’s been a notable resurgence within the industry when it comes to neuroscience, following the exodus that occurred in the prior decade. The development of new therapies in neuroscience is being enabled by improvements in imaging and other technologies that allow drug responses to be better measured within the brain.
Oncology accounts for roughly 50% of the biotech industry’s efforts – and that’s been consistent for the last ten years and will likely stay the same into the future. This heavy focus is driven by major increases in the understanding of cancer biology, anti-tumor immune responses and the emergence of personalized cancer medicines. Despite this progress, most cancers remain incurable, hence the continued emphasis on the sector.
Looking to more corporate trends, major inflows of capital into biotech have led to increasingly large financings and rapid progression to IPOs. In fact, there’s been record numbers of IPOs for the sector for the last three years in a row, and this year in the US alone they have raised a total of $6.7 billion.
Partnerships between biotech companies and established big pharma companies continue to be key to both sides of the industry – and consistent flow of talent from big pharma to smaller biotech has been massively helpful to the sector.
There has also been increased efforts within academic medical centers to support translational activities that enable startups and academic spin outs – with funding support from the likes of the Blavatnik Therapeutics Challenge Awards at Harvard.
What does the future of biotech look like?
One thing that 2020 has taught us all is that it’s difficult (and probably unwise) to try and predict the future. And in biotech’s case, it’s unlikely to be linear.
The future of biotech is dependent on continued support from society, investors and politicians. Continued government funding of basic science research is critical for the long-term success of the sector. Drug pricing that recognizes the value of new medicines and the role they play in reducing the overall healthcare spend is another key driver of prosperity.
We hope that as a result of the incredible efforts of the industry over the past 12 months, in five years’ time, Covid-19 will be a distant memory. And the work that’s already been done should lead the way to better preparation for the next pandemic.
Over the next decade we expect to see much more in the way of cures for genetic diseases and even some forms of cancer, along with much more emphasis on personalized medicine across therapeutic areas. And in 20 years we may even see cures for neurodegenerative diseases – possibly even sooner.
What we can be sure of is that biotechnology is certainly on an upwards trajectory and Covid-19 has brought its importance to the fore. Generating awareness of the work going on behind the scenes will be crucial to build on the industry’s countless successes to date.