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UK Team Visits US Biotech Hotspots For Clues To Success In Genomics Industry

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LONDON--A recent study by a team of UK academics and industrialists has concluded that if the UK is to emulate US success in functional genomics, new approaches will be required. The report, sponsored by the Bioindustry Association and the Department of Trade and Industry here, was compiled by the team after visiting various US centers of biotech activity, including firms and institutions in Seattle, San Diego, and San Francisco.

According to the report, the UK needs more incubators to exploit university research, better technology transfer offices, and more entrepreneurship training for students. "It became clear during the mission that the US has been more successful in translating academic research into the small and medium enterprise sector," it concluded.

While acknowledging that more could be done in the UK to reward and encourage exploitation of academic research, the report said that it is "unlikely that a top-down mechanism of committee structures would be desirable or fully workable in developing commercial academic inventions in the UK. In the US the understanding of the value of research and drive to exploit it seem to come from academic researchers themselves."

If this change in outlook is to be engendered among UK academics, encouragement might need to come from a change in their working environment. The report recommended, for example, that academics should be properly rewarded for intellectual property rights, pointing out that Stanford academics retain a third of the income generated by licensing. "It is clear that the mechanisms for entrepreneurial-minded academics to hold onto their academic posts while gaining finance and resources to manage external private ventures are far more developed in the US," the report said.

The team identified Leroy Hood of the University of Washington as a leading exponent of the US approach. "Dr. Hood continues this theme while still thinking very creatively of his academic interests. His vision of an Institute of Complexity to investigate systems biology and ultrahigh-throughput biology is already attracting funding and is clearly going to produce the next wave of functional genomics companies," they noted.

By contrast, UK institutes often give the impression that academics and commercial activities are mutually exclusive.

The importance of highly effective "technology clusters" in various US centers was high-lighted and recognized for allowing firms to network and develop close alliances. The density of companies in clusters also encourages the development of a skills base, easy mobility of staff among firms, and the presence of a supportive financial and legal infrastructure.

The report concluded, "Overall we gained an impression of a richly diverse ecosystem where new technologies and business strategies evolve and recombine to generate robust new companies. Company failure is viewed as an inevitable and healthy by-product of the process. Senior executives speak openly and positively of their earlier failures as equipping them for future success."

--Paul Wymer

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