Can you give us a snapshot of what you are working on right now?
“One of the things I’m most proud of at We Are Pioneer Group is that we are the only ones that cover the three main bases: company creation, company investment and the provision of the space and the eco-system in which they live. And putting those three together is exceptionally powerful because you can really support the companies at all the different stages. We’ve always come at it from the company basis as opposed to a real estate basis. The real estate is important, without it none of these companies could do what they need to do. But if you come at it from a company point of view and make sure that the companies get all that they need, then they’ll be successful, they’ll grow and they’ll take more space and so you benefit from that point of view. Whereas put the real estate first and you’re not thinking of the companies in the same way. So that’s the key point I’m always keen to get across – the holistic nature of putting the companies at the forefront.”
Can you give us an idea of where the life sciences sector is right now?
“Last year was a record year for investment in the sector in the UK and globally in fact. There has been a lot of money piling into the sector. And the first couple of months of this year showed a record amount of money still going into companies in 2022. For example, we have just raised an EIS fund – an Enterprise Investment Scheme fund – we opened the fund to investments on March 7 and we closed it having significantly exceeded our target on April 5. So, I think that augers well. Life sciences tend to go in cycles and back around the turn of the century, there was a huge amount of promise that was made on the back of human genome sequencing and cell therapy, which was over-hyped and didn’t deliver immediately and so you had a downturn. Now, all of those technologies are actually starting to deliver, human genome, cell therapy, CAR T – all of those things are actually delivering products that are in patients now. So, I think it’s in a really robust state.”
What do life sciences firms need by way of real estate?
“First of all, lab space is important but it’s not a generic lab. There are all sort of different labs that companies need. And that’s one of the things that investors and developers in real estate who aren’t familiar with the sector will struggle to get their heads round. You have to really understand your market. And the markets are different in different locations. So, in the WAPG report we produced recently with JLL, we looked at different locations and the population of start-up companies. In London, it’s very much digital and medical technology companies which aren’t so demanding of laboratory space. Whereas in Cambridge and Oxford there are a lot of companies developing new therapeutics, which need various types of lab space – you need biology labs, chemistry labs, GMP manufacturing facilities and so on. So, you have to know your population, know what they need and make sure you’re delivering the right type of space.
“Of course, you have changes in the retail and office market, which is starting to free up space which is looking at alternative uses and some of them, particularly retail spaces, are quite well suited to conversion into laboratories. If you think about what a Debenham’s department store looks like – it has high ceilings, a loading bay, and goods lifts – these are all things that are needed for laboratory space. So, I think we’re going to see more conversion of space in city centres to labs which is great.”
Does life sciences lend itself to clusters or campus arrangements in terms of real estate?
“It does and we spend a lot of time building the benefits of that into the real estate that we provide. So, we have people whose job it is to develop the eco-system on each site. This includes things such as making sure that company A and company B have met each other because we see there are synergies. People set up cycle clubs and yoga classes and that sort of interaction between people from different companies is incredibly important. As well we have an expert network of about 250 people who are ready to support and advise the companies on our sites. All of that comes from being in close proximity and working together with other companies. They share their equipment, they share their staff, go to conferences together and have joint exhibition stands. You just don’t get that if you are stuck out alone on a trading estate.
“These places are incredibly resilient because even though you have a proportion of high-risk companies, you are taking a portfolio view. You might have 20 or 30 companies in a particular building and if one fails, there are five others that are waiting to step into their shoes. So those buildings are sustained continuously. You’re not going to have companies being acquired and shut down, so you leave a vacant space. So once a place is established as a life sciences real estate asset, it’s probably going to stay there for the future until some stage where we don’t need labs because everything is done in a computer, but I think that’s a long way off.”
What are the challenges that life sciences investors and developers are facing?
“The key thing with life sciences and one of the attractions it has to investors and developers is that if you are working in a lab, you cannot work from home. So, all throughout the pandemic, all through the lockdowns, all of our sites were fully open, fully operational. There may have been reduced headcount, with people tending to work in shifts, so the actual number of people on site was 50% of what you would normally have, but you can’t do without laboratory space. And so, its bucked the trend from a home working point of view. It’s highlighted the attraction of that sector – the robustness and resilience of it.
“In terms of challenges, I think the market is getting pretty hot at the moment and so finding good opportunities is getting rarer and the prices that are being paid are starting to get pretty high. There are a lot of new entrants into the market who are prepared to pay higher prices. But there’s still potential for growth in the sector. For WAPG, a lot of the future growth is going to come from developing existing sites where the companies are growing incredibly rapidly, and we need to provide new buildings.”
The US is the biggest player but how is the UK doing vis a vis other countries. Does it have competitive advantage?
“Yes, huge competitive advantage. It stands head and shoulders above other European countries. The life science industry has been established longer than anywhere else in Europe and the UK has significantly more world leading research universities than any other European Country.”
Are more firms specialising in digital and med tech in London because of the limited space for labs or are there other reasons why those type of firms have located in London?
“That’s a really interesting question – cause and effect – it’s difficult to determine. There is a very limited amount of lab space in London at the moment. What I would say is that a big chunk of the opportunity is around digital health and using AI to discover new therapeutics and of course London was already established as a strong digital hub and those skills are transferable from app and software developers thought to the life sciences sector. I think that is helping to propel London into the forefront of the digital side of things.”
How much of an alternative is it for investors to switch their focus to places like Germany and the Netherlands? Do you see growth happening there?
“Yes, the rest of Europe is a bit behind the UK in terms of the development of the sector and the development of the real estate. So, we’ve gone through a process in the UK whereby a lot of science real estate was public sector-backed five or ten years ago and that has changed with the introduction of many more commercial developers and investors brining a new dimension to the market. Many of the other countries in Europe still have a high level of public sector ownership, but there too it is starting to change.“
Do you see that there is the same kind of talent currently on the Continent and is that also as concentrated as it is in the UK?
“Certainly, the scientific talent is there without question. Because the commercial side of things hasn’t got the same history as in the UK, there’s probably not quite as much management talent but that’s not to denigrate the management talent that is there. But there’s probably not the number of people who have been there and done it as there has been in the UK. One of the challenges in the UK at the moment is the recruitment of talent because most of the businesses I speak to would traditionally have recruited 25 or 30% of their scientific workforce from the EU and that has become more challenging post-Brexit. You certainly do have hubs of activity around places such as Paris, Copenhagen, Malmo, Amsterdam etc. There are a number of key hot spots that we expect to see growth coming from in the future.”
If we fast forward five or ten years is life sciences a recognised major asset class like logistics, retail or office or does it have a different, more niche positioning?
“It’s never going to be on the same scale as something like logistics. It doesn’t have the ability to scale in the same way. But I think it will be important and will certainly be its own asset class, but maybe a little bit more niche.”
2022 you see as being a pivotal year for life sciences – why is that?
“From two angles. One is because we’ve had this flood of money coming into the sector and that money’s coming with high expectations, so the sector is going to have to start delivering on those investments. And to some extent it is, but if that momentum is to be maintained, then there have got to be some returns starting to come for investors, some significant returns. So, whether it’s 2022 or 2023, we’ve got to see the output of all of this money that has flooded into the sector.
“And then pivotal from a real estate point of view is that 2021 was a year that a lot of investors started to take a serious look at life sciences real estate and now there’ll be a bit of a shake out. There’ll be those who understand it and are really committed to it; those who were standing on the edge and, having taken a look, either backed away or dipped their toe in – some with more success than others. So, 2022 will be a shake-out year from a real estate perspective.“