UK biotech’s ‘strong showing’ at JPMorgan

Last week’s JP Morgan health conference in San Francisco was marked by a greater sense of optimism than has been evident for some years, and the UK sector shared in that euphoria.

Writing in a post-event blog, the chief executive of industry body One Nucleus – Harriet Fear – suggested that there was a different atmosphere to the 2015 event, with the “celebration of potential” of last year now replaced by serious discussions about how to spend investment funding effectively.

There was “an explosion of excitement about the potential for the sector into the future with anticipation of IPOs a plenty – and the UK was of course not found wanting in that regard,” says Fear.

The UK contingent included dozens of UK companies, including a number of One Nucleus members, backed up by the BioIndustry Association (BIA) and UK Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman, who fulfilled his promise to “raise the Union flag in Union Square”.

The UK sector arrived in San Francisco buoyed by the best year for UK domestic healthcare and life science IPOs in a decade, headlined by the £211m raised by Circassia last March.

Some 59 UK companies presented in the Biotech Showcase at the event, around 6 per cent of the total, with BIA chief executive Steve Bates describing the event as “an important global shop window for our world-leading companies at all stages of development.”

The sector flew the flag at a UK Trade & Investment (UKTI)/Scottish Development International (SDI) whisky-tasting event and also at a joint BIA/AZ reception at The Old Mint, both of which provided great networking opportunities – with One Nucleus companies reporting “golden nuggets” from both events, according to Fear.

Looking at this year’s crop of UK companies, she highlighted antibody platform company Abzena – which raised £20m in an IPO in July 2014 – and LSE-listed genome editing specialist Horizon which recently announced a £6m deal to acquire German rival Haplogen.

She also singled out pain specialist Convergence Pharmaceuticals – soon to be acquired by Biogen Idec in a deal valued at up to $475m that was announced earlier this month – as another example of a company that is excelling at the moment.

Convergence’s sale is a great indicator of the quality in UK biotech, but the sale does raise the often-cited concern that promising UK biopharma companies tend to be sold off while still relatively small, rather than developing into a flagship company that could serve as a beacon for the entire sector.

Fear also cautions that while it is easy to get excited about the re-emergence of funding opportunities, “it’s clearly still brutally hard work to get funded and the UK is still an ocean apart from the US in terms of sums involved.”

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