A growing UK life sciences sector has been key to developing innovationand boosting diversity

Amid the battleground of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the UK life sciences sector has been powerfully impacted but is emerging with remarkable resilience.

The industry, and the extraordinary professionals driving it, have stepped up to become a vital part of an unprecedented, life-changing response and catapulted the industry to new heights. This trajectory isn’t surprising. For decades, its breakthroughs and scientific excellence have been essential to the UK’s economic strength and fortitude. The sector is now seen as core to its continued growth with a future that looks bright, bold and diverse.

Response and leadership

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 journey, it’s given the life sciences industry an opportunity to do things differently. Throughout the pandemic, the UK life sciences sector has been at the epicentre of critical developments, including the rapid roll out of the first safe and effective COVID-19 treatment, as well as one of the first life-saving vaccines. We’ve also seen the growth in diagnostics – contributing to the sequencing of emerging viral variants and widespread use of new technologies to support remote care delivery.

COVID-19 is only part of the story. The industry is looking through a larger lens thanks to new developments, drugs, technologies such as AI, machine learning and digital tools across other areas, including cancer, diabetes, dementia, mental health, obesity, ageing and respiratory disease.

Innovation and infrastructure

The UK has long been known as an international centre of scientific excellence – with world-renowned academic institutions and scientists, a strong culture of commercialisation in academia and robust infrastructure. The drive to innovate and develop ideas into products starts with universities and their private/public partnerships which are essential in advancing academic research discoveries.

The UK sector is leading in R&D and pursuing novel modalities – such as advanced therapy medicinal products and immunotherapies – and focusing on challenging therapeutic areas, such as oncology and neurology. Today’s major breakthroughs in cell and gene therapies are offering huge potential for new treatments and advancements of difficult diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease and certain cancers. The personalised medicine market is also on the rise with improvements in healthcare analytics, digital data, AI and blockchain technology.

The growing network of universities and research facilities, prominent companies and global partnerships provides an essential foundation, while digital infrastructure growth is rapidly transforming the industry as more clinical trials and collaborations enter the virtual space. Ultimately, the industry is improving the lives of patients with a level of speed and effectiveness never witnessed before.

Investment and momentum

With this uptick in drive and innovation also comes an influx of funding and investment in established companies and start-ups. Data from the BioIndustry Association (BIA) and Clarivate shows 2021 was a record-breaking year for investment in UK biotech and life sciences companies. £4.5 billion was raised in public and private financing, £1.7 billon (60%) more than in 2020. The UK is the frontrunner as Europe’s leading biotech hub in new, breakthrough life sciences start-ups.

And government is committed to building the sector through partnerships with businesses and experts. The UK Life Sciences Vision set a ten-year strategy to accelerate innovations in order to solve some of the biggest healthcare problems including £1 billion in funding available to the country’s most promising life sciences companies. In addition, the newly independent UK regulator is reducing the time needed for drug approvals, making it a more attractive environment for drugmakers and life sciences investment.

Jobs on the horizon

Ongoing COVID-19 developments, emerging therapies and steep investments have positioned life sciences, biotech and pharma for unparalleled employment expansion – more jobs and more top talent! Indeed, the Science Industry Partnership’s recent report predicts the UK life sciences sector could generate approximately 133,000 job opportunities over the next ten years.

That’s an estimated 60% growth rate across biopharma, medtech, R&D and manufacturing. According to an industry survey, a staggering 98 percent of UK companies in life sciences say they plan to increase headcount in the next five years.

Demand goes digital

This momentum, of course, creates a huge demand for talent – particularly highly skilled, tech-savvy people – across all positions, from entry level tech workers to experienced CEOs and board members.

Advanced skills in digital health, AI, data analytics, logistics, engineering and R&D will all be in major growth mode over the next decade. Sustained innovation and competitiveness will also require strong leadership, communication and entrepreneurship abilities, as well as global perspectives. The challenge the sector faces is how to attract, train and retain talent to meet this demand.

Dynamic and diverse mix

The continued success of the UK life science industry depends on the skills, expertise and dynamics of its workforce. Bringing highly talented people from different areas, cultures, disciplines and outlooks has become both essential and smart for these companies.

There has never been a more important time for companies to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their workplaces. Greater workplace diversity broadens the pool of available talent and enables companies to foster collaboration and encourage fresh, original thinking. This industry is, by definition, forward-thinking and focused on human advancement. This should be reflected in the way it attracts and empowers employees, and how it broadens searches with global networks and inclusive criteria.

Finding flexibility and balance

Stemming from both the pandemic and new technologies, the way we work has radically changed. Remote and hybrid workplaces have become the norm, creating new expectations around flexible working conditions and work-life balance.

Life sciences companies that embrace and offer more people-focused and versatile cultures are going to be most successful in attracting, engaging and retaining the best people. Candidates – especially across younger generations – are looking for social purpose and a place to feel comfortable when sharing ideas.

Leading the way

According to Science Industry Partnership’s Life Sciences: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Report, there’s been progress developing an increasingly diverse workforce. The proportion of women working within the industry has risen from 40 to 44% over the past five years.

Data shows diversity in terms of minority ethnic group representation also increased over the same time period. But more work is needed! Life sciences employers need to make DEI a strategic priority, ensuring all operations are seen through an inclusion lens. Embracing and promoting diversity needs to go beyond employees to also touch suppliers, customers and communities as well.

It’s crucial that the sector embeds DEI in its core values and throughout its organisations, advancing an innovative spirit which includes the best people from all communities, experiences and backgrounds.

Fuelled by the brightest minds, today’s fast-growing and resilient life sciences sector will continue its momentum, shaping a truly inspiring future.

Renu Vijh is a Partner at Stevenson Search Partners. Go to stevensonsearch.com