Famous for its rugged coastline and scenic mountains, Wales is also home to a thriving life science industry that has an annual turnover of more than £2 billion ($2.4 billion). The industry, which is supported by science parks, meditech companies and universities, has opened up avenues for a budding biotech sector, particularly for the development of startups.
As Wales celebrates St. David’s Day on March 1, let us take a look at how the biotech industry has made its mark in Wales.
History of the biotech sector in Wales
The growth of the life sciences sector in Wales accelerated in the 1990s, when the Welsh government launched initiatives to promote the industry. The Welsh Development Agency (WDA) was tasked with promoting economic development and attracting investment to Wales, according to Cari-Anne Quinn, chief executive officer at Life Sciences Hub Wales. In the early 2000s, biotech companies like ReNeuron and Q chip, focused on cell therapies and drug delivery technologies, set up their businesses.
A £100 million ($120.6 million) investment by the Wales Life Sciences Investment Fund was launched to help boost medical and biopharma companies in Wales. Life Sciences Hub, which was launched in 2014, also provided a focal point for the sector to catalyze innovation and collaboration between industry, health, social care, and academia, according to Quinn.
Quinn said that over the years, the industry has expanded into areas such as diagnostics, advanced therapies and digital health, with a growing emphasis on collaboration between different organizations within the biotech sector.
Growth of biotech companies in Wales: “the industry has reached the tipping point”
According to Rhian Hayward, chief executive officer of research and product development company AberInnovation, “the industry has reached the tipping point where it is thriving now.”
AberInnovation’s Biorefining Centre has been designed to support industrial biotechnology to study new microbes and enzymes that can help with industrial processing.
Hayward said: “The pilot scale facility for extracting, analyzing and optimizing chemicals from biomass and process sidestreams with integral industrial biotechnology and a food grade environment, allows us to investigate ways of accelerating the shift towards a circular economy and extracting valuable chemicals from waste streams.”
The company, which is based in Aberystwyth, offers biotech startups early-stage business support through funding programs and access to its facilities.
“We recently launched a ‘grow on space’ for rapidly growing companies in our community to ensure they are able to continue to grow and recruit additional staff,” said Hayward.
The Life Sciences Hub also provides support for the growth of biotech companies in Wales. Affiliated to the Welsh government, Life Sciences Hub scouts for innovative products to support specific healthcare challenges and connects biotech companies with investment opportunities.
For biotech startups in particular, the organization offers business support and connects them with the National Health Service (NHS) and universities to collaborate on innovations like vaccine development, according to Cari-Anne Quinn.
As biotech startups navigate the growing biotech sector in Wales, here are five companies that are making waves in 2023.
Known for its venomous sting, jellyfish are boneless creatures rich in collagenous proteins. Collagen, which is used as a dietary supplement owing to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, is also a key component in scientific research.
Cardiff-based biotech company Jellagen developed Jellagel, a jellyfish collagen hydrogel used for in vitro cell culture and tissue engineering. Jellagel offers a non-mammalian alternative to commercially-available mammalian hydrogels, which avoids the risk of disease and virus transfer in humans.
Founded in 2013, the startup also creates collagen coated plates which are beneficial for cell culture research, as well as medical grade materials like collagen powder and dressing for wound care and reconstructive surgery.
In December 2022, the biotech company received £8.7 million ($10.5 million) in funding from investors like Cardiff Capital Region and Development Bank of Wales, to develop Collagen Type 0, in order to expand research in regenerative medicine. Jellagen collaborated with U.S.-based medical center Mayo Clinic to corroborate its successful preclinical trials.
Affecting around 1.4 million people every year, bowel cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Wales. Early detection of the disease provides the best chance for successful treatment.
Swansea-based biotech company CanSense is set to improve the scope for early diagnosis of bowel cancer through blood tests developed using artificial intelligence (AI). The tests aim to eliminate the need for invasive methods like colonoscopies and provide results in 48 hours.
As colonoscopies cost at least $4.2 billion globally, Britain’s NHS has been predicted to save around £300 million ($362 million) a year once the blood tests are procured.
Affiliated to Swansea University, the biotech company has received funding from Cancer Research Wales and Health and Care Research Wales for the project. In 2022, CanSense received £1.2 million ($1.5 million) from the National Institute for Health and Care Research to develop the blood test for healthcare facilities across Wales.
Established in 2020, Copner Biotech specializes in 3D cell culture technology, and manufactures 3D cell culture scaffolds. The regions on the scaffold are differentiated based on the cell’s nutrient and oxygen exchange, which represents physiological conditions in the body.
Based in Ebbw Vale, Copner Biotech collaborated with Jellagen to create a 3D extrusion Bio Printer that uses a specific droplet optimization protocol to improve user experience. In November 2022, Copner and Jellagen received around £400,000 ($483,000) in funding from Innovate UK to develop a 3D Inkjet bioprinting system and software platform.
The company was awarded the MediWales Innovation Start-Up Award in 2022 for its development in cell culture technology.
PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is a technique that has revolutionized molecular biology and is key in the detection of infectious diseases. However, the high cost of PCR reagents makes it hard for many researchers to conduct their studies.
Amped PCR, based in Bethania, in North Wales, is looking to change that. Founded in 2022, the biotech startup manufactures PCR reagents, and recently, commercially released Amped PCR Universal, PCR mix kits suitable for researchers, priced at £49 ($59).
The company won £60,000 ($72,400) through AberInnovation’s BioAccelerate program for innovative business ideas. Amped aims to continue research and hopes to use its tests in farm veterinary applications.
Artificial intelligence has accelerated innovation in the world of biotech. Over the years, it has bolstered antibody discovery, critical to clinical diagnostics and therapeutic treatments. Biopharma company Antiverse engineers novel antibodies against GPCRs and ion channels, which are difficult targets.
Established in 2017 in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, the company develops cell lines for receptor expression and AI-based libraries to boost antibody discovery.
The company secured £1.4 million ($1.7 million) in funding to build a laboratory as well as to hire structural biologists and engineers to aid in drug discovery. In February 2023, it collaborated with Cardiff University’s Cardiff Innovations to continue research and development projects in therapeutics.
Making Wales a place of choice
Hayward hopes that the biotech industry “further demonstrates its ability to play a fundamental role in helping to solve societal and economic challenges.” Hayward believes that as Welsh universities have science parks that offer to facilitate a pipeline of spin-outs and start ups in the biotech industry, this can promote the close connection between research institutions and support their growth.
However, the industry is not without its challenges, which include high development costs, access to funding, and attracting and retaining top talent, which can particularly affect the growth of startups.
Quinn believes that despite these challenges, the sector continues to grow and innovate, and is driven by a strong focus on collaboration and innovation. She looks forward to development in AI and gene therapies, with a focus on sustainability.
Quinn said: “In Wales, we recognise a virtuous cycle between health and wealth and hope to see continued growth for the industry with even greater collaboration between industry, the NHS (National Health Service) and academia making Wales a place of choice for biotech development.”