Bringing together Oxford and Cambridge’s biopharma clusters

Taken together, Oxford and Cambridge play host to two of the world’s top universities, five world-renowned research institutes, the UK’s two largest pharma firms and over 600 biotech and medical technology companies. Given their shared opportunities and challenges, a new report commissioned by Bidwells has called for greater collaboration between them. Will Heigham, partner at Bidwells, explains more.


The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge – just 70 miles away from each other as the crow flies – are consistently ranked as two of the best universities in the world. Founded in 1096 and 1209 respectively, the two institutions boast a centuries-old reputation for academic excellence.

Still, from the perspective of the biopharma sector, Oxford and Cambridge are far more than just prestigious places to set up shop. The cities play host to over 600 biotech and medical technology companies and five globally renowned research institutes, along with the UK’s two largest pharma firms. Together with London, they make up the so-called Golden Triangle of medical research.

“The Golden Triangle concept recognises that although London, Oxford and Cambridge are internationally renowned centres of excellence in biomedical science in their own right, as a cohesive, functioning cluster, the Triangle has the potential to be far more powerful than each of its individual parts,” says Will Heigham, partner at property consultancy Bidwells.

Life sciences cluster

In April 2014, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, established the MedCity initiative. The project was intended to bring together scientists, companies and investors throughout the Golden Triangle, creating the number one life sciences cluster in the world. It describes itself as “your front door to the life sciences sector of London and England’s greater south east”.

Of course, for a project of this kind to succeed, it has to be about more than just branding. As the economist Michael Porter explained in his 1990 book, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, clusters can be defined as “geographic concentrations of interconnected companies, specialist suppliers, service providers, firms in related industries, and associated institutions… in particular fields that compete but also cooperate”.

In short, the critical component of a cluster is network building – forging links between the various parties in a way that minimises one-upmanship and promotes mutual gain.

“While competition is healthy in any industry, when it comes to discovering, testing and marketing new medicines, it makes sense for the two clusters of Oxford and Cambridge to set aside their rivalries, exploit their world-wide reputations, pool their skills and resources, and work together,” explains Heigham. “Both clusters share many values and points in common – the key ones being they have very close to links to education and other science-based businesses, showing that business generally wishes to cluster to share intelligence and knowledge.”

Collating the data

Earlier this year, Bidwells commissioned a major piece of research, which focused on the two cities’ biomedical industries. The findings, published in July, were collated by Jeanette Walker of letscellit.com and were intended to provide a snapshot of the two clusters as of March 2016.

"We wanted to understand why and how biopharma companies chose where to operate."

Since Bidwells is a property consultancy, it wanted to explore the trends driving the demand for property in the biopharma sector. Moreover, it hoped to find out what was driving (or conversely, hindering) the growth of the sectors – issues that could affect global competitiveness.

“We wanted to understand why and how biopharma companies chose where to operate. We also wanted to understand what the key drivers were for them in choosing a location – did the organisation wish to cluster and be part of a science and research park?” says Heigham. “This in turn helps us understand the likely demand from occupiers going forward and therefore means we can advise science and research park owners with clarity as to what occupiers want and need from real estate.”

The company began by auditing the biopharma sectors within a 20-mile radius of the city centres (each area covering 1,257 square miles in total). This meant identifying any company involved in biopharma in some way (e.g. through discovery/research, development, warehouse, distribution or sales) and collating salient information about their age, purpose and location.

Within the Cambridge cluster, Bidwells found 352 companies of this kind, in addition to two universities, four research institutes and three NHS Foundation Trusts. And while the figures in Oxford were slightly lower – 244 companies, two universities, one research institute and two NHS Foundation Trusts – it had the edge in terms of rankings. Oxford was first in the world in life sciences and second overall.

Taken together, the cities had three companies valued at over $1bn and 16 publicly traded companies with a combined market cap of $5.7bn. The vast majority, however, were SMEs (98% at Cambridge, 97% at Oxford) and many were start-ups too: almost a third of companies in either city had been established within the last five years. Around half were based on science, technology or research parks.

Future questions

While the study was certainly revealing, it might have raised more questions than it solved. For instance, how important is it that a company is seen as part of a cluster, when it comes to attracting investment or establishing credibility? And why have Oxford and Cambridge typically produced smaller companies than their US counterparts?

A separate report is due out later this year, which will provide a detailed examination of investment in both the Oxford and Cambridge clusters.

Clearly, this is a complex area that will reward further research. But Bidwells’ reports have provided a starting point for exploration, considering ways the two clusters could work more closely and profitably together. As MedCity continues to foster collaborations, Oxford, Cambridge and London will have a better chance than ever of prospering on the world stage.

As Heigham puts it: “Bidwells see this as a small yet very significant first step in understanding what is needed to realise the enormous potential of the Golden Triangle, not just in terms of driving economic growth but also in delivering better treatments and outcomes for patients both in the UK and beyond.”