Do the clouds on the pharma horizon have a silver lining?

If Jane Austen was writing in the early 21st century in Europe, she could well have begun one of her novels with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a country in possession of a biotech sector, must be in want of a pharma company.“

Europe is experiencing a contraction in overall pharma presence as the sector on the whole continues to downsize. Entire industrial sites, all shiny and lovely, are emptying, with experienced pharma scientists and managers returned to the wild to forage for nuts and twigs.

This is the horrible new reality for countries such as Sweden, which prides itself on a national environment of scientific innovation and big business. Site closures have been regularly making headlines across Europe, and every time they raise questions about the suitability of the countries concerned to retain such business.

But wait a minute…we’ve been here before, haven’t we? From my dim and distant youth in the Cambridge cluster, we watched large biotechs and pharma close doors as the first major funding crunch came. Biotech has taken quite a zigzag, crazy route to maturity, and the industry rarely repeats itself, but this is familiar and we should be learning from the past.

The notable outcome for the cluster as a whole was that scientists and managers turned to their own business enterprises, with IP and skills from big business being turned into new small business. That was really the making of the Cambridge cluster. Through this flux of new enterprises, it managed to reach critical mass before the finances really got chilly and start-ups got harder.

So the current round of closures needs to be channelling as quickly as possible to support more innovation and make use of the skills becoming available, before people retrain as lorry drivers or move to a commune in Peru. This time around, the big difference is that there is little or no start-up funding available privately, and this leads straight to the door of national governments.

So governments, it’s time to put aside the handwringing and the vague statements about creating a leading scientific environment, and put your money where your mouth is. Seize the day for your healthcare sectors and invest for a political and financial return! If pharma moving out is inevitable, make good use of what it leaves behind in the next phase of biotech industry development. They have already made it cheap for you by building world-class sites and training top-notch scientists – what more do you want, the moon on a stick?