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How to Plug the Skills Gap

The UK’s biotech sector is booming. According to the Bioindustry Association (BIA)’s recent report of UK biotech financing, there has been a 1,000 percent increase in biotech investments since 2012 (1) – and the UK is up there with San Francisco and Boston as one of the world’s leading life science clusters. The sector has also been seen as a shining light in the fight against COVID-19, with several UK-based companies and institutions playing key roles in developing and manufacturing vaccines quickly. However, despite the positivity and momentum within the sector, there is a lack of skills in certain areas – threatening the industry’s potential growth.

The scale of the problem

To characterize the scale of the skills challenge and offer suggestions for plugging the gap, the BIA hosted a panel discussion entitled, “How to develop the skills needed for a thriving biotech sector.”

Will Milligan, Chair of the BIA’s LeaP Alumni Group and Process Development Lead at eXmoor Pharma Concepts, set the scene by citing the BIA and the ABPI’s Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy report (2). Their research found that the UK will need 133,000 skilled scientists by 2030 to support the industry’s growth. “That’s a crazy number,” he said. But it’s not just science and manufacturing skills; there’s also a need for managers, leaders, software developers, commercial and financial skills, regulatory, personal development, and more. “We really need to think about how to fill these gaps.”

The panel also discussed the challenges facing specific sectors within the life sciences, beginning with cell and gene therapy. The UK Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult’s Skills Demand Survey 2019 found that 83 percent of ATMP and vaccine manufacturing companies raised concerns that the recruitment and retention of skilled talent would slow down or delay their forecasted manufacturing expansions (3). And the problem isn’t limited to the UK. For example, the International Society for Cell and Gene Therapy (ISCT) has put together a range of proposals to help address the global talent gap in advanced medicine, including mentoring programs, training courses, and public education programs, which The Medicine Maker covered in its Cell and Gene Therapy Supplement (4).

Reporting on findings from the BIA Cell and Gene Therapy Advisory Committee (which she chairs), Helen Delahaye, Consulting Chief Operating Officer at Azellon, highlighted a lack of trained people in process development, manufacturing, data handling, and software architecture, as well as specialists in commercialization. She also noted that cross-movement of staff from company to company is leading to continuity gaps and rising salaries.

“This makes the UK less attractive to investors wanting to set up new cell and gene therapy companies,” she said. Delahaye also spoke about the challenges universities have faced during the pandemic and how those could exacerbate the problem. “Universities have not been able to offer much lab time for students going through undergraduate courses during the pandemic and that could add to the skills gap,” she said. “It's a bit of a bleak picture.”

The panel identified genomics as another field with positions to fill. Adrian Ibrahim, Chair of the BIA Genomics Advisory Committee and Head of Technology Transfer and Business Development at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes genomic data is only going to get bigger and more complex. “As that data grows, we need smarter ways of aggregating, analyzing or visualizing [it],” he said. “There is a massive and already unmet need for high-quality data scientists and high-quality software engineers. Not wishing to sound negative, but we talked about this stuff five, six, seven, eight years ago – it wasn’t difficult to predict. We have some initiatives that we put in place, but not enough to keep pace with genomics.”

The third sector discussed by the panel was engineering biology – the design and construction of novel genes, pathways, and organisms. It brings together a range of disciplines and skills from biology to chemistry, engineering to bioinformatics and computing – and that means competing with other, often lucrative, sectors for prospective employees. Tim Brears, CEO of Evonetix, used his company as an example. “We’re developing a platform for DNA synthesis and most of the people within our company are physical scientists; we have electronics engineers, software engineers, chemists, biologists – a wide range of disciplines,” he said. “If you contrast that to the traditional drug discovery company, where you might find medicinal chemists, biologists, and so forth, the skill sets we need are much broader. We’re competing with the likes of Google and Microsoft.”

How can we close the gap?

Coming back to cell and gene therapy, Helen Delahaye spoke about the importance of apprenticeship schemes – of which there are several in the UK. Responding to the recommendations of the Advanced Therapies Manufacturing Taskforce, the UK Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult was awarded £1.5 million by the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to establish the Advanced Therapies Apprenticeship Community (ATAC). The purpose of the community is to create a ready supply of skilled talent ranging from manufacturing operatives to technical experts and researchers. Each Friday, ATAC hosts a “lunch-and-learn” meeting for employers who already have apprentices or who are thinking of taking apprentices on. “That’s one great initiative that’s helping to bridge the skills gap in cell and gene therapy,” said Delahaye, who also noted that there are currently around 137 apprentices working in six companies, half of which are SMEs. “But that’s still a small number compared with the 33,000 scientists needed.”

Another piece to the puzzle is the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network (ATSTN), which is backed by £4.7 million in funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK. Over the past year, ATSTN announced two of an initial three new National Training Centres, which will deliver on-site advanced therapies and vaccine manufacturing training – both practical and digital. In March, the National Horizons Centre, Darlington, was confirmed as the first National Training Centre (5); and in May, RoslinCT, Edinburgh, was selected as the second (6).

Delahaye also discussed a number of training videos and webinars that have been created in partnership with the NHS. “These have become very popular, attracting up to 1,800 attendees,” she said. The group also hosts a series of e-learning modules, which are free to NHS staff and can be part of their individual professional development as certified courses.

For students looking to get into the industry, there are now postgraduate courses in cell and gene therapy in the UK – notably at the University of Manchester, the University of Sheffield, and University College London. And, in the US, Delahaye noted that some companies have collaborated with community colleges to set up vocational degrees that train technicians in manufacturing and process development for cell and gene therapies. “This is something that could be considered in the UK,” she said.

Reaching further back, Delahaye noted that a “cell and gene therapy explainer” has been well received in schools. “It was actually written for politicians,” she said. “We need to be thinking about our school leavers at 16 and 18. Where are they headed? Are they aware of the industry?” 

When asked what could be done to help academia and industry build their skills in the genomics sector, Adrian Ibrahim cited the need for pre-competitive knowledge sharing. The Wellcome Genome Campus set up an initiative six years ago to identify targets based on strong genetic associations underlying disease. Industry partners and academics are involved – and everyone involved has a veto on the specific programs. “Companies support the program because they can influence which programs are taken while also accessing genomics infrastructure – of which there may be one or two in the world at that scale, and certainly only one in Europe,” he said. “This has exposed hundreds of scientists to quite a large number of pharma companies. There are some of the finest minds in the world working with each other, sharing knowledge and building.”

Ibrahim remembered speaking to the head of cancer programs when he first arrived at the Welcome Institute in 2012. “He said, ‘Some of our biologists will arrive without coding skills, but nobody will leave without coding skills,’ and that’s how it should be across the board. We have lots and lots of smart people; we just need to create the opportunities.”

LeaPing forward

Will Milligan spoke about the LeaP Alumni Group as an example of a way to inspire people to advance in their careers and, potentially, become leaders. The program brings together 12 people per cohort from different companies within the biotech sector. “It’s an incredibly valuable and unique opportunity,” said Milligan. The program lasts two years and, every couple of months, each member of the program takes turns inviting the others into their company to share best practice from their sites. It gives participants a chance to network with others and draw upon different experiences and backgrounds. “How often do people from supply chain manufacturing or regulatory backgrounds get together and talk across sectors and across companies?” he asked. Milligan previously participated in the program while working for a 30-person company and had the chance to visit sites like GSK, Allergan, and Fujifilm.

“It really opened my eyes to what else goes on in the industry,” he said. “There were some really inspirational moments during the program. For example, we were visiting Fujifilm and Steve Bagshaw, who was CEO at the time, walked in and chatted to us for 30 minutes about his career and what he’d done in the industry. And it was a fascinating story and those kinds of moments kind of stick with you and inspire you going forward.” The program was so successful that the BIA doubled its size after two years – there are two parallel cohorts now. “The key thing it does is inspire.”

The discussion closed with the panelists sharing their final thoughts on how to close the skills gap within UK biotech. “When we’re asking the question, we’re thinking 10 years from now, but my feeling is that we need to start looking earlier,” said Charlotte Casebourne, Vice-Chair of the BIA People, Skills and Talent Working Group and Co-Founder & CEO of Theolytics, echoing Delahaye’s earlier point. “We need to be asking: at what stage can the BIA start to inspire people to start thinking about what their path to the industry might look like?”

Delahaye noted that there are many British people working abroad in the cell and gene therapy area. “How can we bring them back to the UK to decrease our skills gap?” she asked. “Perhaps that’s something we can take forward.”

“We have lots of small wins, but big wins only come from national-scale programs,” said Ibrahim. “We need to start funding academies and specialist centers for large-scale, cross-disciplinary work.”

We also reached out to Oliver Hardwick from Cytiva, and Chair of the BIA Skills Network, who summed things up by painting a positive picture for the future of the sector. “This past year, the UK Life Sciences sector has demonstrated its capabilities to the world. And with appropriate commitment from government, we are likely to see rapid growth in the biotech sector over the next 10 years – with the UK positioned alongside the world’s leading biotech regions,” he says.

“At the core of that growth will be the skills and talent development across all aspects of our industry – from bioinformatics and cGMP operations, to entrepreneurial and business management skills. Continued focus on skills is required to ensure we build on a position of strength and capitalise on investment to propel the UK life science sector forward to the overall benefit of patients globally.”

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  1. BIA, “The science of success: UK biotech financing in 2020” (2021). Available at: https://bit.ly/3fGLSsy.
  2. Science Industry Partnership, “SIP 2030 Skills Strategy” (2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/3bLYFZv.
  3. CGT Catapult, “UK wide sites announced as preferred bidders for National Training Centres for the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network” (2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/2T7tiCa.
  4. James Strachan, “Next Level Cell and Gene Therapy,” The Medicine Maker (2019). Available at: https://bit.ly/3hPc1Il.
  5. ATSTN, “National Horizons Centre expands as National Training Centre for the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network (ATSTN)” (2021). Available at:  https://bit.ly/34Kpo4v 
  6. ATSTN, “RoslinCT has been selected as the second National Training Centre in the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network” (2021). Available at: https://bit.ly/3ihf4t1 
About the Author
James Strachan

Over the course of my Biomedical Sciences degree it dawned on me that my goal of becoming a scientist didn’t quite mesh with my lack of affinity for lab work. Thinking on my decision to pursue biology rather than English at age 15 – despite an aptitude for the latter – I realized that science writing was a way to combine what I loved with what I was good at.

From there I set out to gather as much freelancing experience as I could, spending 2 years developing scientific content for International Innovation, before completing an MSc in Science Communication. After gaining invaluable experience in supporting the communications efforts of CERN and IN-PART, I joined Texere – where I am focused on producing consistently engaging, cutting-edge and innovative content for our specialist audiences around the world.

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