Five years on from Pfizer selling Discovery Park, the site’s current chief executive Toby Hunter tells PharmaTimes about the plans for its future

With around 150 companies working in 14 buildings over 440 acres, and several blockbuster drugs to its name (including Viagra, Zoloft and Lipitor), few sites can match Discovery Park’s significance for the UK life science industry.

The multitude of companies working across the site is a sharp change from five years ago, when it was wholly owned by Pfizer. After the company sold the park in 2012, it was bought by entrepreneurs Trevor Cartner and Chris Musgrave, who then sold their shares to investment company Discovery Park Estates Limited last year. Discovery Park’s new chief executive Toby Hunter says that the site’s new owners are aiming to continue its growth with a focus on new lab space.

“We reviewed the business here and felt there was a significant pent-up, slightly frustrated demand for lab accommodation and science accommodation,” Hunter says.

“We’ve got two principal laboratory buildings, one is a building called Discovery Park House and one is a building that’s still known under the old Pfizer numberings as Building 500.

“Building 500 is mainly empty and has about 300,000 square feet of floor space. If you talk to the scientists, it’s sort of their equivalent of Abbey Road because of all the drugs that were thought of and taken through research there. So it’s very much part of our plans to bring business back to the building.

“We then have Discovery Park House, which is also a 300,000 square foot lab building for which 60,000 square feet was never fitted out. We have already kickstarted the process of developing that area; we’ve done the first 5,000 square feet and we’re now moving on with the next 50,000, and we’ve got enquiries for the remainder as well.”

The space may also be used for the various colleges that work with Discovery Park, including Canterbury Christ Church University and the University of Kent.

“They provide courses here for their students, which gives the students access to industry and to specific lectures, and they can interact with working scientists,” says Hunter. “Investors and researchers like it because they get access to the bright young students who can come and work for them.”

There are several ways Discovery Park hopes to attract new businesses – and one that Hunter highlights is funding start-ups.
“NCL Innovation founded a specific fund, the Discovery Park Technology Investment Fund, for smaller companies with a great idea,” he says. “So we essentially have our own venture capital fund specifically for Discovery Park.

“Alongside big players like Mylan and Pfizer [who still have a presence on the park], we’ve got many interesting newer businesses, such as companies that have come from India or companies started by ex-Pfizer workers who have had a bright idea and have received funding to set up a business off the back of that.”

Hunter partly attributes the park’s success in attracting businesses to a “genuine shortage” of collective science spaces across the country.

“If it is handled properly and managed efficiently, scientists like grouping together and having that ability through communal spaces to be able to chat or share ideas and be part of a common thinking environment. Someone from a startup company could be sitting next to someone like [Pfizer Sandwich site head] Julian Thompson in the canteen, so you can talk to them about their experiences and ask for their advice.

“What also puts us on the map is the fact that Pfizer was so successful here. I liken it to a racing stables – if you have a trainer who trains horses and he’s won the derby twice, chances are you’d put your horse with that trainer because he might win it a third time. And I think science works a bit like that, because there are so many ideas that never make it beyond that initial ‘eureka’ moment. You need that probability of being able to get onto the market, and while there’s a lot of science that goes into drug discoveries there’s also quite a lot of happenstance surrounding them that can really be influenced by the environment.”