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Confidence And Good Post Rooms: What Life Sciences Occupiers Really Want

It’s not often the real estate industry gets told that it's not optimistic enough. But when it comes to life sciences, that might just be the case. And it could hold the growth of the sector back. 

“Real estate needs to have confidence in the pipeline of companies that are being created and growing,” Ascend Gene and Cell Therapies Head of Corporate Development Freddie Dear told an audience of more than 400 at Bisnow’s Life Sciences Annual Conference last week.

Scneider Electric's Kas Mohammed, Achilles Therapeutics UK's Natalie Harmony, Harwell Campus' Barbara Ghinelli, HDR's Brian McClean and Discovery Park's Martino Picardo.

“You only have to look at the amount of money that’s been raised by venture funds across the UK and Europe, and the amount of companies being created over the last five years. If there’s confidence in the sector, that is what is going to enable flexible leases, and that will enable biotech companies to thrive.”

Life sciences companies need extreme flexibility in leases, to be able to grow or shrink according to their needs, Dear and other speakers from the sector said. That is something the real estate sector, relatively new to life sciences in the UK, perhaps doesn’t yet appreciate. 

“It’s about an understanding of how we think as venture capitalists, and, as an extension, company builders,” SV Health Investors Senior Associate Charles Dunn said. “I think sometimes there’s a lack of appreciation of the timelines we’re working on and the level of flexibility we need to keep within our businesses, and that means we sometimes have to close doors that we wouldn’t otherwise need to close."

Bisnow hosted the UK's first full-day life sciences real estate conference featuring life sciences occupiers of different types and sizes, who gave insight into what they want from a sector that is keen to tap into their booming industry. 

SV Health Investors' Charles Dunn, Ascend Gene and Cell Therapies' Freddie Dear, SC1's Sir Robert Lechler, Longfellow's Alex Wright, Longfellow's Jessica Brock and 3PM's Rob Burborough.

The answers ranged from overarching concepts like flexibility, to things that were seemingly mundane, but might mean the difference between success and failure when building or buying a new scheme.

“Some people might find it really insignificant, but the postal stuff is crucial,” Vivan Therapeutics Principal Scientist and Lab Manager Andrea Chai said. “The postal room here [at Stanhope’s Westworks building in White City] is open from 7am to 7pm and we’ve got to know the people here really well. They’re the people who tell you what you’ve ordered is here — but what you’ve ordered is enzymes that need to be at 4 degrees or minus 28 degrees asap, and they know it is important.”

Employee experience is something that is much-talked about in the office world right now — the need to make the office a pleasant place to be if people are going to want to come back rather than work from home. One of the appeals of life sciences real estate is the fact that experiments or drug manufacturing can’t be done from home. But if the employee experience is not right, people will choose to work for another company.

“When you live in a plastic bag for six and a half hours a day, which is essentially what my staff do, then you want that to be a comfortable environment,” Autolus Executive Director of Cell Manufacturing Claudia Mercedes Mayer said, speaking of the experience of staff working in super-clean lab or manufacturing facilities. 

Savills' Tom Mellows, Imperial College's Neil Alford, Hammersmith & Fulham's Stephen Cowan, Stanhope's Claire Dawe, Stanhope's Charles Walford and Vivan's Andrea Chai.

“If that wider employee experience is unpleasant, people can go and do traditional manufacturing somewhere else, and I’ve just spent £100K training each one of them, they’re unicorns for me. How do they get to work, how do they feel at work, do they have good food, a canteen, all of these things are hugely important for me.”

Something much talked about in life sciences real estate is clustering and connectivity, the fact that companies in the life sciences and biotech world want to be near other firms in similar sectors and fields in order to flourish. 

Achilles Therapeutics UK Facilities Programme Manager Natalie Harmony said that in life sciences, this isn’t just a nice-to-have. It is fundamental to how companies grow and expand, and to how vital, world-changing research and development is undertaken. 

“Behavioural scientists have found that when you do have those kind of environments, you see improvements in areas like job performance and staff retention,” she said. “When you are doing something like the companies in this sector, something that is innovative, that has never been done before, you need that environment, you need that collaboration and connectivity. Even speaking to a competitor, you might be inspired by something, and that is where innovation is birthed.”

Bisnow's Mike Phillips, Autolus' Claudia Mercedes Mayer, UBS' Olivia Drew, Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult's Kasia Averall and JLL's Chris Walters.

Having community and social spaces, and running the facilities like a hotel are vital for life sciences occupiers she said. 

As well as flexibility of leases and of tenure, the rapid pace of growth of life sciences companies means the physical space being created must also be flexible in how it can be used. 

“The design of the building has to be able to keep pace with the growth of the company,” Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Head of Cluster Development Kasia Averall said. “Depending on what stage of a process you’re at, can a clean room be converted into a lab, for instance?” 

Autolus’ Mercedes Mayer gave one example: Where utilities like power and water go into a lab space influences the type of work that can be done there. Keeping that flexible makes the space more useful to her company. 

Lastly, no one should forget life sciences tenants are scientists.

“Scientists love data, it is in our nature,” AstraZeneca Head of Estate Development & Capital Programmes Richard Surma said. “When I talk to people in the company, they want data on space utilisation, equipment and lab utilisation. Having that available helps you to take them on the journey with you when you’re planning how you need your space to work for you.”