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August 26, 2019

From academia to a career in biotechnology: the UK biotech landscape

life science
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By Ian M. Parnham, Outreach Manager and Writer, Science Entrepreneur Club

This is the second article in a series on navigating the jump from academia to a career in biotechnology [1]. Though this immensely vibrant vocational space requires much more than the few words shared here, this article highlights the exceptional opportunities, success stories and investment pouring into the UK biotechnology landscape.

The UK biotechnology economic landscape

A current headache for the life science sector at large is the UK’s makeshift surgery to separate itself from the EU. Despite large uncertainty looming around Brexit and a concomitant reluctance to invest, the UK biotechnology sector is booming. “More UK biotech companies are maturing […] with UK biotech company IPOs raising more than twice as much money in 2017 than 2016,” one can read in the UK BioIndustry Association (BIA) report [2].

From 2011 to 2017, the UK attracted £28bn in investment compared to France’s, not exactly measly, £11bn and Germany’s £9.3bn [3]. In December 2018, the UK biotechnology sector received another £1.3bn cash injection by the government’s life sciences sector deal, tailored to “create high-paid, high-quality jobs” [4]. Reading the press release announcing this ambitious plan you might discover your prospective employers.

In 2017, Professor Sir John Bell led the creation of a report with which he advised the UK government to maintain and expand the healthy life sciences sector [5]. HM government incorporated his advice in an industrial strategy that signals current and future intent to advance science innovation [6]. Entitled ‘A Vision for the Life Science Sector in 2025’,  the BIA aims to develop “the third global cluster” rivaling Boston and the BayArea [7].

The UK life science landscape (Fig.1) is clearly conducive to these big plans and the golden triangle is its epicenter [S1-S3].

Biotechnology success stories

Extensive recent successes demonstrate the lucrative and enticing biotech sector. A multitude of fields within biotechnology deserves the spotlight. Here are some highlights:

Monoclonal antibodies

Development of the first commercial fully humanized monoclonal antibody (humAb) is arguably UK biotech’s greatest success story. From its discovery at the Medical Research Council (MRC) labs in Cambridge, Humira (Human Monoclonal Antibody In Rheumatoid Arthritis) heralded a rising biotech star [9]. top fast 50 winners based on revenue growth includes two healthcare and life-sciences companies [10]. Kymab Ltd, venturing to continually improve antibody discovery technologies, ranks 33rd in the list mentioned above, with 763% revenue growth, and third in Beauhurst’s life science companies list of highest funding earners [11].  


Sequencing the human genome revolutionized disease diagnostics, enabling the detection of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and a barrage of new innovative paths to treat illnesses. Oxford Nanopore Technologies produces high-performance sequencing technology [12] and has entered the illustrious list of UK unicorn businesses [13,14]. Unicorn businesses are startups that reach a valuation in excess of $1bn. It also tops Beahurst’s life science companies list for highest funding received [11].

Synthetic Biology

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Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) lists 74 companies within the synthetic biology space [15, S4-S6]. The target application areas span energy production, materials, agri-food, environmental protection, health and chemicals. Every known biotech enterprise overlaps with synthetic biology. See the SEC’s Green Biotech series for further inspiration [S7-S9].

Globally, in 2017, the synthetic biology companies depicted in Fig.2 alone raised $1.7bn [16]. Currently, while the US dominates the synthetic biology startup scene, the UK comes second [17], demonstrating its strategic position within the field. Imperial College London, in particular, champions the UK’s green biotech revolution [18,19,20].

Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Automation and AI have reaped huge dividends in biotech. London-based BenevolentAI harnesses informatics to expedite drug development processes [21]. It was founded in 2013 and reached unicorn business status within 2 years [22]. Synthace received $25.6m to automate biological laboratories [23]. Microsoft, Synthace and Oxford Biomedica initiated a collaboration to incorporate machine learning methods and automated lab experiments [24] – truly demonstrating the inter-disciplinary nature of automation and AI.  

These four brief overviews illustrate the breadth and scope for growth amongst the burgeoning biotech sector. The assured future investment by multinational conglomerates and the UK government promises to continue the expansion of the complex inter-disciplinary landscape. And there many more fields within biotech are showing promise: CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats), RNAi (ribonucleic acid interference), immunotherapy, antibiotic resistance, health tech [S10, S11], stem cells, vaccination, and plant biology are but a few [S12, S13]. Last but not least, cell and gene therapy, a prominent rising star, will receive its accolades in another post [S14].

These examples also highlight another important point. If like many others, you are embarking upon a life science career (pre or post-PhD), and are privileged to freely choose your interest plotting a course for the next few years, peruse the landscape strategically. Take into consideration which sectors have a future. Look on which horses private investors and governments are placing their bets and you will have a helpful indicator where the future of life science is headed, at least in the near future.

Finally, one of the missions of the Science Entrepreneur Club is to provide you with ideas on how to follow your interests and prepare for your first or next step in the biotech space. Check our website [25] and its many resources [S7-S12] as an initial point of reference.

Related posts


  1. Science Entrepreneur Club career miniseries
  2. Press Release BioIndustry Association report
  3. The Telegraph - Tech sector growing faster than UK economy with 72pc of investment outside London, report says
  4. press release - £1.3 billion industry/government investment in UK economy and new partnership driving early disease detection
  5. - Life Sciences Industrial Strategy – A report to the Government from the life sciences sector, p. 21-30
  6. HM Government – Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future
  7. UK BioIndustry Association (BIA) - A vision for the UK life sciences sector in 2025
  8. Graph with permission from - Life Sciences Industrial Strategy – A report to the Government from the life sciences sector., graph from pg.22  
  9. Medical Research Council - From lab-based discovery to global blockbusters
  10. Startups - These are the fastest-growing tech businesses in the UK right now
  11. Beauhurst - The UK’s fastest-growing life sciences companies
  12. Oxford Nanopore Technologies website -
  13. Business Leader - Who are the UK’s 14 Unicorn businesses?
  14. - 13 biotech leaders you should know in the UK’s golden triangle
  15. Innovate UK - Knowledge Transfer Network - Synthetic Biology UK landscape(beta)
  16. Synbiobeta -
  17. Cambridge consultants - Synthetic Biology Start-ups in the UK and Worldwide A report prepared for the UK Synthetic Biology Leadership Council
  18. Imperial College London - Synthetic biology success as Imperial experts win prestigious award
  19. Synbicite website
  20. Imperial College London - Wallpaper bio-solar panel developed by researchers
  21. Benevolent AI website -
  22. Beauhurst - UK startup unicorns: the complete list
  23. Venture Capital funding - Synthace raises $25.6m to automate biological laboratories.
  24. Microsoft Innovation stories - with lessons learned from computers, a new platform could help boost production of lifesaving biological therapies
  25. Science Entrepreneur Club website -

Further reading

UK investment in Life Sciences and companies to watch

[S1] UK government Industrial Strategy Deal 2 -

[S2] Pharmatimes - cell and gene therapy catapult addresses sector skills gap

[S3] Telegraph - Boris Johnson unveils plan to make London scientific capital of the world

[S4] - companies to watch 2019

[S5] Ventureradar - top synthetic biology companies

[S6] Synbiobeta - Commercializing synthetic biology

Science Entrepreneur Club - Green Biotech

[S7] Science Entrepreneur Club - Fueling the future

[S8] Science Entrepreneur Club - Fungi fantasies

[S9] Science Entrepreneur Club - Sustainable food series

Science Entrepreneur Club - Health Tech

[S10] Science Entrepreneur Club - The Digital Revolution - part 1  

[S11] Science Entrepreneur Club - The Digital Revolution - part 2

Exciting new techniques and technologies within Biotech
[S12] Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology - Technologies and Techniques

[S13] Oxford Biomedica press release - Oxford Biomedica and avovant sciences enter into a $842.5 million exclusive worldwide licence agreement for OXB-102 for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease