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'Not Something You Just Amble Into': Life Sciences Is No Walk In The Park


The woman running 1M SF of UK laboratory space, recently promoted to control the largest UKI regional portfolio of life sciences developments, has warned that the property business needs to dump simplistic ideas about bioscience’s real estate needs.

That’s the call from Kath Mackay, newly appointed director of life sciences at Bruntwood SciTech, the UK bioscience real estate business backed by insurance giant Legal & General. SciTech has 2.4M SF of assets under management and a 5M SF development pipeline focused on the life sciences sector’s alternative Golden Triangle of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Mackay takes on the role of UK director having run SciTech’s 400-acre Alderley Park life sciences campus, south of Manchester. The park is reputed to be the UK's largest bioscience site.

“To succeed you need to understand that life science people want shared facilities. At Alderley Park, for instance, we have shared labs where companies can rent a bench, and we offer access to capital equipment on a pay-as-you-go basis. We offer shared lab coat cleaning, shared waste facilities, and that’s because life science businesses need these services to be successful but they can’t provide them themselves,” Mackay told Bisnow.

“Real estate also needs to understand what infrastructure is needed to create things like chemistry facilities, needs to know what a clean room is, and so on. Life science property is not something you just amble into. You need a deep understanding of the sector.”

“It is a growing field in the UK but it does not yet have the maturity of the U.S. life sciences sector. Many developers don’t yet understand why it is different and what it needs. There are still questions and a lack of understanding, but that will resolve in time as real estate involvement grows.”

Bruntwood SciTech Director of Life Sciences Kath Mackay

The call for developers to get serious comes after a wave of speculation that former department store sites could be converted into laboratory space.

Research published earlier this year suggested that department stores could make ideal locations for the flourishing UK life sciences and biotech sector. Savills said there are around 100 potential former retail locations in London that could be converted to other uses, amounting to a total of 1.8M SF. The firm said it was already advising on three potential department store-to-laboratory conversions, including one in London that offers the occupiers valued proximity to a major hospital.

“All laboratories are not the same. Some, like digital health projects, will need an office. Some in medical technology will need makerspace, but if we’re talking drug discovery then you need chemistry space which is demanding for a building, and popping it into an ex-Debenhams is not an easy task,” Mackay said.

Mackay’s appointment represents a growing sense that the UK’s “alternative” Golden Triangle of life sciences locations — Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool — is on the brink of rapid growth. Extending specialist support from the Manchester base to SciTech’s growing operations in Liverpool and at the Birmingham Health Innovation Park is expected to yield rapid results.

“The question is, how can we make the UK the best place to start and grow a life science business, and Bruntwood SciTech had been doing that before, but piecemeal. We are now going to do it at scale,” Mackay said.

The focus for future growth projects will be on medicines and infectious diseases.

The 150K SF Glasshouse building, Alderley Park

Earlier this year SciTech announced it was to double the size of the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus.

A 10-acre site close to the University of Birmingham and Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, east of the A43 Aston Webb Boulevard, will be redeveloped as a 1M SF health and innovation campus. It is badged as the West Midlands’ only dedicated health and life sciences campus.

Birmingham City Council has now granted planning permission.

It is the biggest step yet in the development of new science property infrastructure in Birmingham and transforms a former battery-making site that had previously been earmarked for a supermarket and petrol station.