Kent’s biotech ambitions building on ex-Pfizer site

After Pfizer declared it was shutting its UK research and development hub in Sandwich, Kent four-and-a-half years ago, there was despondency in the region.

The US firm had employed 2,400 people at the research and development site for decades, and its closure looked like bad news for Sandwich, an isolated corner of the otherwise prosperous south east of England, with few other big employers in the area.

However concerted efforts by local business leaders and politicians have helped attract a new generation of small-to-medium sized life science firms to the old Pfizer site, now renamed Discovery Park.

Kent’s ambitions are helped by the fact that Pfizer never did depart the site entirely, maintaining a smaller, more focused research centre, which forms the backbone of the Discovery Park.

Today a new biotech business network is being launched at the site, aimed at making the entire Kent region a ‘BioGateway’ between the UK and continental Europe, exploiting its position around halfway between London and Paris.

BioGateway says it wants to be the most complete life science network in Europe, serving as the gateway between the UK and the rest of Europe. However competition for investment from the sector is fierce, and many regions across Europe are trying to generate their own life sciences and technology hubs.

Competition is particularly strong within the UK: London, Cambridge and Oxford are the powerhouses, thanks to the global reputation of their universities, but other cities, such as Edinburgh and Cardiff, are also established players.

A launch event for BioGateway will be attended today by leading figures in the national and international biotech community, investors, academic thought leaders, local and national government. Among the speakers will be Tommy Dolan, Vice President at Pfizer who leads the firm’s 700-strong group at the site, which was made famous by the discovery of blockbuster impotence drug Viagra in the 1990s.

Today Pfizer uses the site for mid-to-late-stage medicines development, recent examples including lung cancer drug Xalkori (crizotinib) and late-stage breast cancer treatment Ibrance (palbociclib), which was granted accelerated approval, in combination with letrozole, by the US FDA in February.

One of the most remarkable stories to emerge from the Pfizer downsizing was that of Simon Westbrook, chief executive of start-up Levicept. A former Pfizer employee, Westbrook was among the many redundancies at the site, but bought the rights to a novel compound targetting pain, and set up Levicept to develop the drug, now called Levi-04.

Simon Westbrook is also acting chairman of BioGateway, and says the Kent region is seeing rapid growth in life sciences investment.

“Kent is home to many leading names in the life sciences sector, including global players such as Pfizer, Mylan, Sekisui and Aesica. Over the last two years, there has been an unprecedented growth in the number of companies moving into the region and Kent has become one of the fastest-growing centres for the life sciences in the UK with over 150 companies employing more than 6,800 life science professionals working in drug discovery, in vitro diagnostics, medical devices and agribiotech.”

BioGateway says by facilitating partnering between companies and fostering links with other science networks, associations and institutes, Kent can become “the connector between the life science sectors in the UK and continental Europe.”

Pfizer’s continued presence at the site is a trump card for the site, but BioGateway will still have to punch above its weight to beat its higher profile rivals elsewhere in the UK and continental Europe, and new success from start-ups like Levicept will be vital.

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