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18 April 2016

Alta Innovations: the future of success

In the second part of our series, editor Thierry Heles takes a closer look at how Birmingham University is building a complete ecosystem for spinouts, startups and late-stage companies.

Author: Thierry Heles, editor

One of the ambitions of James Wilkie, chief executive of Alta Innovations, has been to offer a complete package to life sciences companies from proof-of-concept through to fully independent operations.

Birmingham is particularly well-placed to achieve that goal, as Wilkie points out that within a two to three square kilometre radius there are "more than 180 registered biomedical companies and organisations".

"Every year, there is typically more than £230m of biomedical research funding," he says, underlining that it is not just university researchers who benefit but that there are also "the NHS clinicians and that makes a total of at least 6,000 academics".

In fact, the money has been flowing towards Birmingham for a while – since the 1930s, when the original Queen Elizabeth Hospital was built. "The architect," Wilkie explains, "deliberately put the university's medical school next door and connected. He said at the time, the whole point of research is to get it translated into patient outcomes."

That foresight has created a long-lasting effect on policy, all the way to today when life sciences are at the top of the agenda for local politicians.

"There is a piece of land 500 metres from here that is being developed as we speak, that has been set aside specifically for grown-on space for life sciences opportunities in the Midlands," says James Wilkie.

The former industrial site, known as Battery Park, is set to house the Birmingham Life Sciences Campus and will add to the host of other life sciences buildings within a 15-minute walk of Alta Innovations. The campus is scheduled for completion in 2017.

Helen Miller-Viney, manager of the university's incubator, Biohub, which is next door to Alta Innovations and forms the nucleus of Birmingham Research Park, points out how the park is surrounded by the Institute of Translational Medicine, the Institute of Cancer Research, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the NHS Blood and Transplant regional centre, the Medical School and the School of Biosciences.

"Birmingham Life Sciences Campus will be about 40,000 to 50,000 square metres," Miller-Viney explains, 10 times the size of the Biohub. "It is a lot of space, but if we want to attract bigger companies that is what we need." 

Biohub Birmingham

Biohub, Birmingham University’s life sciences incubator

The reason for establishing the Biohub was simple, but its concept proved a challenging sell initially. "The Biohub came about because I was looking at how the digital industries are innovating and I went to a couple of places like the Google campus in London," Wilkie says.

"What I found was that there are a lot of one or two-man bands who create apps, internet-based ideas and they all sit in the same open-plan office.

"They all do their own different things but they are sharing infrastructure and they are in a community – and it is the community that is really important because even though they might not share the details about what they are doing because they are a little bit worried about intellectual property, actually they do want to learn from each other.

"And it is really beneficial if you are one person sitting in a room with 20 or 30 other people rather than sitting in a room on your own."

It might be less obvious now that the UK has several shared-space life sciences incubators, such as BioCity Nottingham, BioCity Scotland and the similarly named Biohub at Alderley Park, but Birmingham's was the first purpose-built such space.

"Once it was built," Wilkie says, "I discovered there are about five of these in the US, one of which was actually still under construction at the time.

"I was really chuffed when I found that out. We had seen that kind of idea, we raised the funding for it – it is a £7m ($10m) debt-free project funded by European structural funds, the university and the city council." 


“I told people that I was thinking about setting up a shared space. They thought I was completely mad.”


Wilkie's colleagues were certain that his idea was not a good one. He adds: "When I joined the UK Bioincubator Forum five years ago before I even had a building – in fact I did not have the funding – I told people that I was thinking about setting up a shared space. They thought I was completely mad."

As Chris Hand, chairman of medical diagnostics company Abingdon Health reveals, however, Wilkie was on to something.

Spinout Linear Diagnostics, a subsidiary of Abingdon and Biosciences Ventures, was the first tenant to move into the Biohub when it opened in March 2015, and is the incubator's biggest success to date. 

Hand says he is keen to take over a dedicated space on the top floor of the Biohub following the growth of his team across several benches in the shared lab.

And already, Hand is setting his sights on the Life Sciences Campus as a future stepping stone that will enable his company to remain in the Midlands, as he points to the quality of life, the infrastructure and transport network as additional compelling arguments for Birmingham.

Biosciences Ventures is a £2m joint venture between Abingdon and Birmingham University – each partner put in £1m. It is led by Hand and commercialises intellectual property in the field of medical diagnostics produced by Birmingham with the support of Abingdon's commercial expertise. 


“Tenants can do their own things in their own ventures but we employ a full-time lab manager. That is an interesting role, because they have to be a mixture of helper and Rottweiler.”


Of course, sharing space leads to some challenges such as keeping equipment calibrated between users, which Wilkie fully acknowledges. The solution is a strict lab manager, employed directly, as he points out: "Tenants can do their own things in their own ventures but we employ a full-time lab manager. That is an interesting role, because they have to be a mixture of helper and Rottweiler."

To attract businesses to the Biohub, Miller-Viney says: "We pitch it as quite affordable because for startups and spinouts there is not much money spare. It is fixed fee, which means it is easy to manage the finances."

The importance of the cluster is also underlined by her, explaining that although the lab boasts a lot of basic equipment, from vortex mixers to dishwashers with deionised water, it is easy to get researchers access to items that may not be available in the Biohub at nearby buildings.

When asked how easy she finds it to attract tenants, Miller-Viney says she is hopeful the Biohub will increase in popularity. "Startup companies in the field coming out of Birmingham? Great, not a problem.

"Trying to get people from other places, that is a little bit more difficult, but Birmingham and the Midlands are just gaining a little bit of traction. We have got more startups than anywhere else in the UK except for London." 


“Suddenly you have a coffee or photocopier discussion which ends up being quite substantial. Suddenly people who have never interacted with university find it really easy.”


Unsurprisingly, Wilkie is not just focusing on the incubation, licensing and spinout processes. Down the hallway from his office, entrepreneurs are buzzing around the BizzInn, working hard on making their ideas succeed.

"The BizzInn is an outreach program to the local entrepreneurial population," Wilkie explains, "and since it started two years ago, we have had something like a 120 entrepreneurs through it and about 35 businesses that have survived more than 12 months. At the moment, there are about 45 people employed by those businesses."

Wilkie admits those numbers may not be a lot "in the grand scheme of things" but he says he is proud of the fact that it has created 45 jobs.

Not just outside startups that have joined the BizzInn, according to Wilkie, who reveals that "70% are entrepreneurs who have had nothing to do with the university before, but the other 30% is our own academics and one or two student startups".

That melting pot is proving beneficial to the entrepreneurs and David McGee, who founded anticounterfeiting technology company RealTag, is one of many benefiting from it.

"David's company is a good example," Wilkie elaborates, "because we were able to put them in touch with an academic who happens to be on the advisory board of one of the world's leading banknote companies.

"Suddenly you have a coffee or photocopier discussion which ends up being quite substantial. Suddenly people who have never interacted with university find it really easy."

Wilkie sums up his vision of the BizzInn. "What I am trying to do here at the park is to create a gateway for academics, and businesses and entrepreneurs who may be a bit freaked out trying to find somebody because it is a big place and they need help. Actually, a physical gateway is really good."  

Birmingham Research Park, launched in 1984, has some 30 tenants at any given time. Wilkie underlines that "they are all profitable entities that have been running for some time or are subsidiaries of larger businesses or UK outposts of international businesses".

Why is the park focusing on life sciences? "The thing we are particularly good at in Birmingham is clinical studies," Wilkie says, "because we have a very ethnically diverse population and it is very stable, so you can get results in one trial and come back a few years later to do the same cohort again and get longitudinal numbers. We are one of the biggest clusters for clinical trials in Europe."

In fact, Birmingham Research Park was never actively planned to become a medical park, but these various factors have contributed to the fact that it has – a reality that is now fully embraced by Wilkie. 


“UK universities get a lot of criticism from politicians at the moment that somehow we do not contribute to the economy or the research income somehow is not being generated and used to revitalise the economy and make things grow. You know, that is a complete myth.”


Wilkie's ambition is, perhaps unsurprisingly, partially driven by a certain frustration with the hostility of the political elite.

"UK universities get a lot of criticism from politicians at the moment that somehow we do not contribute to the economy, or the research income somehow is not being generated and used to revitalise the economy and make things grow. You know, that is a complete myth," he says.

"The political climate at the moment is trying to portray universities in that light, but just in Birmingham's impact on the local economy as an employer, it is over £1bn a year in terms of added value. We are the graduate employment university of the year. What is the classic way in which a university influences the economy? It is the graduates."

The Biohub, BizzInn and the research park are only some of the examples in which Wilkie is trying to fight that view.

He estimates that all the physical translation spaces on the edge of the university have "a total budget of more than £60m a year – which is about 12% of the university's total turnover".

"So actually, as a university," Wilkie adds, "we are already spending very substantial amounts of money making sure that the research that we are doing is put into a kind of shared space where academics and the users of that research knowledge can work alongside each other to get something out of that."

He continues: "When we get beaten up by the politicians I think we need a better answer," and not just "in the case of Alta Innovations but actually through all these other innovation nodes that do exist around the institution".

The frustration is not stopping Wilkie to dream big. "We have a good base," he concludes. "It has not been an accident that all these things have gone up together because essentially it has been invested in coherently and consistently since the 1930s." 

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