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London Mayor Seeks to Form Biomedical 'Golden Triangle'

London’s ebullient and media-friendly mayor, Boris Johnson, today unveiled an initiative that aims to attract commercial investment to the bioscience research powerhouses of London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Johnson hopes that his plan—dubbed MedCity—will forge a “golden triangle” of research collaborations between the three cities, bring in venture capital financing for spinout companies, and encourage major pharmaceutical companies to establish bases in the region.

At the heart of the plan is the £650 million ($1 billion) Francis Crick Institute, now under construction in London and led by geneticist Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society. When the institute opens in 2015, it will be the biggest biomedical research facility in Europe, employing about 1250 scientists and with an annual budget of more than $160 million.

Following hard on its heels is the Imperial West campus, a few miles away from Imperial College London itself. Springing from a site once owned by the BBC, it will host a $250 million multidisciplinary research center staffed by about 1000 scientists, and should be completed in late 2015. Other London universities, including University College London and King’s College London, also have major expansion plans.

Johnson has looked at this cornucopia of science and wondered why it is not generating more wealth. With a jealous eye on the thriving bioscience hub in Boston, he is now seeking to stimulate similar commercial success in his own backyard.

Backed by $2 million from his own budget, along with $4.9 million from the government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England, MedCity will act as a marketing agency and dating service—and perhaps even marriage counselor—for researchers, companies, and investors. Workshops will help startups woo venture capital funds; international jamborees could help draw in companies from Europe, China, and the United States; and political lobbying may help smooth the path for partnerships to flourish.

The strategy is modeled on the broadly successful Tech City initiative, which has seen London’s “Silicon Roundabout”—a bleak gyratory system in the east of the city—become an unlikely but popular home for dozens of IT startups.

"MedCity will span everything from research to clinical trials to manufacturing, across biotech, med tech, and health tech,” Johnson said during a launch event at Imperial College’s Hammersmith campus today. “I am in no doubt that having the whole chain from small spinoffs to massive companies doing their research, clinical development, and manufacturing here in London and the southeast can be as important to our economy as the financial services sector is today."

London is already home to several major National Health Service research centers, and MedCity hopes to promote the region as a base for clinical trials. “Our unique combination of great universities and first-class research hospitals, dovetailed with access to a critical mass of entrepreneurial talent and a diverse population, puts the capital at the heart of medical discovery and its application,” said Dermot Kelleher, vice president of health at Imperial College, in a press release. "MedCity will allow us to intensify efforts to turn medical innovations into patient benefits and economic value on a national and international scale.”

Research managers have long fretted that there should be greater collaboration around the “golden triangle,” and similar initiatives have been tried before, with mixed results. A decade ago, the business network London First tried to foster collaboration between industry and academia in the capital, while the Oxford to Cambridge Arc initiative attempted to create a ribbon of research-based companies between the two university towns.

MedCity will be different, says Alan Barrell, entrepreneur–in-residence at the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge, and part of MedCity’s advisory panel. “This has legs, because Boris is behind it,” he tells ScienceInsider. Pharmaceutical companies are also much more willing to engage in open research collaborations with academia than they were a decade ago, he adds.

Encouraging existing startups to work together will be crucial, Barrell says. “Quite a lot of the companies exploiting new technologies are synergistic, so bringing them together can attract more investment,” he says. Barrell points out that Health Axis Europe, an alliance between biomedical clusters in Cambridge; Leuven, Belgium; and Heidelberg, Germany, has been successful in corralling European funding to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

He hopes that MedCity can reach even further. “I’d like to interest more top scientists from China, as well as companies there, to have a place in MedCity,” Barrell says.

But he acknowledges that MedCity faces a tough task. Venture capital investors are notoriously more risk-averse in Europe than in the United States. And whereas Boston hosts a compact cluster of companies and research institutions, Oxford and Cambridge are about 112 kilometers apart with transport links that are generally considered to be appalling; both lie a similar distance from London. “Proximity is important,” Barrell admits.

Even the (admittedly powerful) force of Johnson’s personality won’t be enough to secure MedCity’s success. “We’ve got to get beyond the rhetoric,” Barrell says. “The researchers and investors have got to believe in it and connect.”