Why post-Brexit cooperation is key to scientific success

28 Feb 2017

Dr Penny Owen, interim executive chair, Life Sciences Hub Wales, pictured at the International Stakeholders Conference. Image: Huw John, Cardiff

Despite the Brexit shift, life sciences progress will require continued global cooperation, writes Dr Penny Owen from Life Sciences Hub Wales.

If there’s been one consistent theme to the last 12 months, it’s uncertainty. Political, economic and social upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic has unsettled the traditional institutions that underpin our societies.

In these islands, Brexit has dominated the debate, and, although the ramifications of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) are still anything but certain, we now at least have a little more idea as to the direction of travel.

‘We can’t afford to use the current global turbulence as an excuse to turn inwards and focus on our own fields’

For the scientific community, Brexit is likely to throw up both challenges and opportunities.

The main risk it poses the life sciences sector in the UK is the future of collaboration. Currently, much collaboration comes through Horizon 2020, the largest ever EU research and innovation programme. We need mechanisms like that to continue.

As long as the UK continues to have a strongly funded research base and continues to have strong scientific skills and expertise, people will want to collaborate with us.

Life sciences across the Irish Sea

The simple truth is that we live in a global world and the issues that we face increasingly require global solutions. In the life sciences sector for example, the latest drug discoveries and medical technology developments will not be made in isolation, but through partnership and collaboration. Therefore, we can’t afford to use the current global turbulence as an excuse to turn inwards and focus on our own fields.

We must instead redouble our collaborative efforts and reach out to new friends and potential partners. Life sciences is a particular success story on both sides of the Irish Sea, and a key sector that offers particularly attractive opportunities for cooperation.

Ireland’s life sciences sector exports more than €45bn annually and employs more than 50,000 people in almost 400 firms, including in 18 of the top 20 pharma companies and 15 of the top 25 global medtech companies.

In Wales, life sciences is one of our fastest-growing and most innovative industries, employing more than 11,000 people in more than 350 companies, and contributing around £2bn to the Welsh economy every year. Thanks to the sector’s incredible success in recent years, Wales is now at the forefront of a number of exciting and pioneering developments across various fields, from pharmaceutical to biotechnology.

At the heart of that is the Life Sciences Hub Wales in Cardiff, which was established to foster collaboration and bring together academic, business, clinical, government, professional services and funding organisations to provide a commercially driven resource for the sector. The hub works to showcase Welsh life sciences globally, and we are determined that will continue post-Brexit. We already have a number of mechanisms in place to achieve that aim.

Cross-border cooperation

Both Wales and Ireland are internationally recognised as offering outstanding opportunities for life sciences start-up businesses, so it makes sense for us to work together and learn from each other to tackle the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities we all face.

A recent example of this was when we invited Avril Copeland, founder and CEO of Dublin-based healthcare company TickerFit, to speak at the Welsh NHS Confederation’s annual conference earlier this month.

TickerFit, which Siliconrepublic.com listed as one of its outstanding women-led start-ups, has developed a cloud platform for prescribing and delivering personalised programmes to patients. Copeland spoke on a panel focused on empowering patients and professionals with digital healthcare, including how cloud-based platforms, lifestyle apps and wearable technology can support healthcare interventions.

‘Forward-looking, positive, cross-border collaborations must continue post-Brexit’

We are also hugely excited by the potential of CALIN, the new Ireland-Wales life sciences network. Launched with €11.96m of EU funding, CALIN (which stands for Celtic Advanced Life Science Innovation Network) aims to connect SMEs with world-leading higher education institutions including Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea Universities in Wales, and University College Dublin, NUI Galway and Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork in Ireland.

Focusing on precision medicine (diagnostics, devices and therapeutics), regenerative medicine, and biocompatibility and safety evaluation, CALIN will engage with businesses to support advanced life science product development through collaborative R&D. It hopes to engage and assist more than 240 SMEs throughout Wales and Ireland.

Both Welsh and Irish governments are strongly supportive of the programme, with Irish Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe, TD, citing it as an example of how EU funding can contribute to successful cross-border cooperation.

Forward-looking, positive, cross-border collaborations like this must continue post-Brexit, even if the UK is no longer able to access EU funding.

Our message is clear: the UK might be stepping back from the EU, but we must not let our scientific industries step back from the world.

By Dr Penny Owen

Dr Penny Owen is the interim executive chair of the Life Sciences Hub Wales. She has more than 20 years’ experience of working in the life sciences sector, specifically in R&D, marketing and operations.