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With Consolidation Heating Up, UK Government Plays Genomic Matchmaker

TORONTO, June 10 - Alice Lin is a matchmaker.

 

The vice-consul and life science-sector specialist for the British government, Lin's primary job description is to facilitate partnerships and mergers and acquisitions between British and American biotech and genomic companies. And with international consolidation heating up she has her hands full.

 

"The UK government decided that there were certain sectors [of biotech] in which existing operation, in public diplomacy, trade, and economic development, were simply not meeting the needs of the industry because they are so knowledge-based and technical," she said in an interview with GenomeWeb.

 

It is Lin's job to shuttle between the US and Europe and meet with myriad biotech types who know they want to 'go international' but aren't sure how to begin.

 

Lin, an American, appears to have been a bright coup for the British Foreign Office and seems custom-made for the job: Beside a stint with Genzyme Genetics, she cut her teeth keeping tabs on the DOE and the NIH and made sure the government funding they were using was being spent wisely and efficiently.

 

The genomics space is a recent focus for the young vice-consul. The British government recently allocated $25 million for a novel genomics program. Here, Lin and her modest staff would mull ways in which this money might help "nurture and support" Britain's genomics space. Most of the time the companies require some mentoring and a bit of cash.

 

Though Lin works mostly with smaller firms on both sides of the Atlantic, she also meets with bigger biopharma players in the US that want to know what the Home Office is doing to protect their industry, she said.

 

In February, her three-person office, located in the British consulate in Cambridge, Mass., turned its attention to proteomics and organized a kind of week-long blind date, complete with symposia, fora, and schmooze sessions, designed to help disparate--and desperate--biotech execs make a love connection. A similar soirée will take place in October for pharmacogenomics.

 

Though some may raise a skeptical eyebrow at the idea of a federal government playing matchmaker to an industry like biotechnology, Lin says the two are made for each other.

 

"Biotechnology [and especially genomics and bioinformatics] is so dependant on government money," she said in between sessions of the BIO 2002 meeting here. "It's the kind of industry that there's relatively less money to invest for start-up companies, and the only reliable way to get funding is through the government." Cash-strapped biotechs take note: Like a friend known for rigging blind dates, Lin's services are free.

 

She notes the difficulty of balancing the conflicts of interest inherent in these kinds of mixed marriages. For example, when giving a leg up to a nascent biotech, the government must keep in mind its obligation to ensure public safety. 

 

To be sure, not everyone is in love with the premise of Lin's office. Beside the politically reactionary and those who distrust big government on principle, some biotech companies, especially the mid-sized ones, are unwaveringly skeptical.

 

There is, however, a curious cycle that Lin says exists within the biotech space that mimics the evolutionary relationship between newborns and their mothers. For example, young companies seek the help of the government more than other firms, said Lin. Later on, as a slightly larger company with between 100 and 300 employees, the toddler biotech begins to get a better sense of the interplay between the private and public sectors.

 

As the company matures and grows into adolescence its sense of that interplay distorts. At this stage the emboldened biotech sees the government as a hopeless regulatory anachronism designed to cramp its style and retard its development. 'We're smart and strong enough to do things without the government,' these companies think.

 

Finally, very large multinationals abandon their youthful rebellious streak and look to forge new links with government, this time with self-preservation--and patents and lobbies--in mind.

 

"They finally recognize pharmacopolitics," said Lin.

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