Venture Capital

Pension funds must invest in UK biotech, says Syncona boss


“Syncona is very UK-focused. We have no constraints on where to invest, but we have exceptional science in Britain. There is a shortage of capital and experienced people, so the lack of competition means we have our choice of the science and, for us, being local is important because we are so hands-on.” he says.

“We don’t sit here as passive investors waiting for companies to come to us; we get out into the scientific community, we roll up our sleeves, we find an academic, we work alongside them, write the plan and then start to build the business together.”

Syncona’s big focus is on cell and gene therapy treatments. The technology is on the cusp of a major medical revolution, Murphy says, and in five to 15 years, he reckons it will be routinely used.

So far, Syncona has sold two of the companies it has built: Nightstar, which has a gene therapy for people with a rare form of blindness, and Blue Earth, a molecular imaging firm. The former sold for 4.5 times Syncona’s initial investment, and the latter for 10 times, reflecting a combined profit of nearly £500m.

“The beauty of our structure is that as a balance sheet investor, the capital remains in our business and we are now re-deploying those profits,” Murphy says.

His commitment to UK biotech is perhaps why he was chosen as one of two life sciences leaders – the other being GlaxoSmithKline’s Dame Emma Walmsley – to advise the Government on its Build Back Better strategy.

He was also an adviser to the Government’s “life sciences vision”, published earlier this month. The vision laid out plans for pumping more money into the biotech sector through a £200m taxpayer-funded grant, topped up by a further £800m from Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund.

“The topic is close to my heart,” he says. “If you take a life sciences company off the bench and move it all the way through that process to be an approved product, that will cost you $400m-$500m (£289m-£362m), so it is capital intensive.

“In the UK, we have a very vibrant start-up setting and do a good job of founding companies. Historically, what we have not done is provide the scale-up capital to allow them to continue to grow, and I know the Government is very focused on that.”


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