Time-poor start-up founders need life science clusters to thrive

Time-poor start-up founders need life science clusters to thrive

Mairi Dillion at Kadans

Trying to survive as a start-up can feel like an uphill battle. Finding investment, building partnerships, and reaching new audiences can be tricky on tight budgets and deadlines. And in the life sciences sector, this can prove even more challenging.

There are over 60,000 SMEs in human, health, and social work competing for survival, with a worrying half of new businesses failing within the first three years of operation. While the picture may seem bleak, the pharmaceutical sector is a pillar of the UK economy and is powered by innovative life science start-ups. Formed by some of the brightest minds in the country and often able to innovate at pace, start-ups are an important asset for Big Pharma organisations, bringing a new perspective to an already thriving industry.

However, it can be tricky for start-ups to get a foot in the door and make the relationships that matter. Basing themselves in the right location can be a vital piece of the puzzle, giving themselves maximum opportunity to communicate, and work, with Big Pharma players.

Big Pharma and start-up relationships go both ways

As a new company on the block, it can be tricky to spread the word about what you’re doing to the right people. You can also assume that you need to have a certain amount of data or results already secured before you can talk to bigger players — but this is rarely the case. Big Pharma wants the innovation, knowledge, and experimental nature of start-ups, whilst start-ups look to Big Pharma for support and investment.

In fact, you can’t go out too early to start engaging with other players in the industry. Soon, it will become clear which parts of the industry are receptive to your research, and which are not. A few decades ago, Big Pharma was still doing a lot of its own R&D. Fast forward to now, and these organisations are looking to start-ups to spark early-stage innovation.

Serendipity doesn’t have to be left to chance

Bumping into someone at a conference or dropping them a LinkedIn message does not automatically mean that you get your foot in the door. Having visibility in the right places is vital to maximise opportunities for serendipity. Working in the same environment with one or two degrees of separation makes bumping into the right people more likely — and more organic. Simply basing yourself in the same cluster or community shows that your interests align and improves the visibility of your work, allowing you to communicate little and often, and make real connections.

It is all about networking. This might seem obvious, but to start-up founders who come from a science background, it can be a shock to find that the strength of your research is not all you need to find a partner or investor. Working in a life science cluster means that founders can be in the lab for the morning, go downstairs to a shared area for networking, then go to a community event, grab a drink, and talk to Big Pharma players all in the same complex. Choosing the right space to set up shop is about more than just the facilities. It’s about choosing somewhere that maximises the opportunities for different individuals at different levels in the business, in different sub-sectors and with different aims to increase knowledge and find business development opportunities.

Take the new One North Quay ecosystem as an example. Coming soon to Canary Wharf in 2027, this site will be Europe’s largest and most technologically advanced life sciences building with 23 floors of laboratories, workspaces, and communal areas. The vertical campus joins other life science spaces in the area such as a wet lab innovation and flexible workspace centre at 20 Water Street, building a community for London life science organisations. When start-ups base themselves in locations like this with access to like-minded businesses and support from real estate partners, it creates an environment that accelerates growth and builds lasting partnerships.

Clusters as the catalyst for start-up success

Collaborative environments are where life science organisations thrive — and start-ups are no exception. In the early stages of a company, being in an environment where you can naturally learn and grow is vital to success, both in collaboration and funding. Founders no longer have to waste time chasing people that aren’t interested. Staying in the same cluster allows start-ups to be guided by those in the know and gives time-poor start-up founders and Big Pharma executives the platform to make connections.

Look at it like fishing. You want to go where there are good quality fish of all different varieties that are well-fed and nurtured. When you’re in that environment, you are more likely to catch the best fish, or in this case, make the best relationships. A specialist life science cluster provides this environment, combining world-class research, infrastructure, and investment to accelerate start-up growth. It can prove much more difficult going it alone, where lab space can be limited and spread out across multiple sites, and there are fewer opportunities to make the business connections that matter. Some organisations are even having to look for lab space three years ahead of time, disrupting the whole innovation cycle.

Start-ups must look to established real estate partners in life sciences with clusters that will accelerate their growth. Not only do these partners provide the laboratory and office spaces that start-ups need to develop at pace, but they also host events and help tenants to network with each other — not just in their cluster, but with other sites around the world. This access to global talent, potential partners, and mentors is invaluable for start-up founders in their first few years, and finding the right real estate partner can prove crucial to success.

Ultimately, where you work matters. Lab and office space is a given, now it’s the extra benefits that real estate partners can offer that make them the most appealing prospect for start-ups and Big Pharma alike. Being based in an established life science cluster maximises opportunities for relationship-building, funding, and collaboration, and stops leaving networking up to chance. Casual conversations in clusters are vital to success, and with the right real estate partners, founders no longer have to rely on serendipity for success.


Mairi is Ecosystem Manager for the UK & Ireland at Kadans Science Partner.

Mairi has a wealth of experience in early-stage tech fundraising, project management and outward facing relationship building (public and private sector). She began her career in major government sponsored infrastructure projects before moving into the innovation and entrepreneurship landscape. As Head of Operations for a venture capital backed bio-tech start-up, she gained broad business experience bringing a product to market and fundraising both in the UK and abroad. Through her recent roles within the Catapult Network, Smart Specialisation Hub and Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network, Mairi has built a deep understanding of how to link the research, commercial and investment worlds.

Media Contact Information: