Are the days of the traditional R&D facility numbered?

As scientists continue to push boundaries in the search for new drugs to tackle some of the world’s most debilitating illnesses, they are increasingly looking for next generation laboratories where they can harness innovation.

March 04, 2019

Labs have traditionally been synonymous with scientists carrying out test tube experiments. But as technology advances, the research and development environment is being reinvented - and so is the space they are seeking.

“When you go into a lab now you rarely see people in white coats with pipettes, you see banks of machines, with researchers who go in and set the machines and then go back to an office to analyse the results that come through,” says Dr Glenn Crocker, Head of Life Sciences at JLL UK.

The move to in silico drug discovery and development – where experiments are conducted using computer modelling or simulation - is still in its infancy but could transform life sciences in the UK.

“Increased automation and digitisation of research and development (R&D) means facilities are likely to move from being mostly laboratory to equal parts wet labs, flex space and office,” adds Crocker.

As a result, pharmaceutical and biotech companies are looking for more agile ways of working to better meet the needs of today’s scientists, improve productivity and compete with emerging smaller enterprises who are forging collaborative ways of working.

“Big Pharma’s response to decreasing R&D productivity is driving much of the current behaviour in the industry,” says Crocker. “In recent years we have seen an increase in early stage company investing, co-location with start-ups and academia, divestment, outsourcing and M&A. This will only increase and will lead to a structural shift in where and how companies work.”

Shifting space demands

In the UK, Oxford, Cambridge and London all have established life sciences centres where close links to universities encourage biopharmaceutical companies to pay a premium to access the researchers and healthcare professionals who can help them commercialise innovation.

Next-tier centres are also emerging in areas like Edinburgh, Manchester and Nottingham, albeit it on a smaller scale. Edinburgh BioQuarter, for example, has seen a cluster being developed around the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

Urban lab space is becoming more and more popular – a turnaround from more traditional large suburban spaces once favoured. New facilities, are often more modular and able to quickly respond to research findings and an increasingly fast-paced digital world.

“What these firms are looking for is the right lab and office mix, and it’s in short supply in the right configuration and the right urban locations, where they can easily collaborate with academics, and other scientists and build effective ecosystems,” says Crocker. “The wet lab will not go away, but the ratio of office to lab will change.”

Today’s scientists need flexible workspaces that can be easily reconfigured to accommodate different kinds of research. Mobile benches and unassigned workspaces, for example, allow for shifting demands and fast changes in personnel and equipment. Meanwhile, incubator labs like Imperial College London's White City Campus, offer early-stage and mid-tier firms the opportunity to collaborate, respond to market changes and quickly develop new products.

Investor capital spurs demand

The worldwide prescription drug market is growing at 6.5 percent annually and according to Deloitte is expected to reach $1.06 trillion by 2022. This is driving investor interest in emerging healthcare companies, which, coupled with corporate venture investing from the major biopharmaceutical companies, led to a record £2.2 billion being invested in UK life science companies in 2018, according to the UK BioIndustry Association.

However, the average return on R&D investment among large biopharmaceutical firms has declined dramatically, from 10.1 percent in 2010 to 1.9 percent in 2018, while the estimated cost of bringing a drug to market has doubled over the same period and now stands at $2.2 billion.

Crocker says new players are entering the market, often from non-traditional backgrounds. But, there is a real imperative to invigorate the research and development process – and shorten the time and cost it takes to get products from the lab to pharmacy shelves.

“The landscape is changing dramatically,” Crocker adds. “Some 70 percent of products in clinical development now come from small companies. And the digital transformation of the industry, means in future the biggest healthcare companies in the world could well be Google and Apple.”