What with last year’s will-they-won’t-they Pfizer/AstraZeneca saga, and GSK’s race to develop an Ebola cure, we hear a lot about Britain's successful big pharma businesses. But you don’t need to be a multi-billion pound legacy company to make money from drugs.
Neil Murray, a veteran with 25 years’ experience in pharma, set up the Liverpool-based biotech company Redx in 2010 and it’s since ballooned to become an AIM-listed business with more than 140 staff. The company is predominantly focused on developing oncological drugs to treat cancer and drugs to combat infectious diseases, and it’s also about to launch a new immunology division.
Redx has been riding on a wave of interest in biotechnology that has emerged in recent years. ‘It became very tough for biotech companies through early 2000s and up until 3-4 years ago,’ Murray says. ‘But there's very much been a resurgence for biotech in the UK, as there has been in the US.’
‘People are starting to come back to the idea of biotech – largely I think because behaviour within the pharmaceutical industry has changed. There's a lot more dealmaking going on in pharma than there was previously – investors are starting to see that there are realistic opportunities, or more realistic opportunities and returns in biotech than they perceived that there were previously.’
Compared with a tech startup or a food brand, getting started in pharma requires a lot of early-stage cash, something Redx has managed to net bags of. That includes £13m from high net-worths including Jon Moulton, and more than £10m in Regional Growth Fund cash. Most entrepreneurs would tear their eyes out to land that kind of cash but Murray seems pretty clear on why investors were happy to pay up.
‘I think we're unusual in biotech,’ he says. ‘Typically most biotechs will be based around science that is either spun out of an academic institution or spun out of an industrial company – and it then tends to be that science looking for a commercial return. Redx is all about ensuring that we have a commercial return and the science underpinning that.’
That approach has helped Redx grow rapidly, taking on legions of staff in the process. There’s a lot of talk about science skills shortages in Britain and though Murray says Redx has been able to hoover up employees from big pharma firms, which have cut back on early stage research, he’s clear that the country needs a different approach.
‘Whilst we're equipping lots of students with degrees, what we're not giving them is the basic skills to work in a laboratory and that's something that the academic sector has to address, or it is going to be a fundamental problem in our industry,’ he says.
‘Sadly vocational training is not valued in this country in anything like the way it is in other countries in Europe. Particularly in central Europe, laboratory technicians are well regarded and well rewarded because they're seen as being valuable people in their own right. Just because they don't have an academic degree doesn't mean they’re not extremely valuable staff.’
The skills shortage clearly hasn’t held Redx back so far though. It floated on AIM in March and its market cap now stands at around £55m – not bad for a company that’s less than five years old. Rapid growth brings its own challenges though.
‘When you have that kind of rapid growth, the real challenge is not only making sure you're bringing in talented people - and I think we’ve been successful in doing that - the real challenge is making sure that you maintain a consistent culture across the business and that people are buying into that culture,' says Murray. 'If you're bringing in a lot of people very quickly, it's very easy for the view of that culture to be deleted very quickly.’
Murray describes himself as a 'lapsed chemist', and while he hung up his white coat a long time ago to focus on the commercial side of things he says he's still fascinated by the scientific aspects of the job. He's clear, though, that the business comes first.
'Ultimately we can do the best science in the world but if we're not commercially successful then we don't have a business at the end of the day,' he says.