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Welsh Life Science Sector Bucking the Trend

Now at the heart of a global recession, few countries and sectors are reporting growth. Bucking this trend is the Welsh life science sector, where industry is succeeding, and support is strong.

Last year’s Medica Review highlighted how the Welsh life science sector was staying strong in the face of adversity. A year later, global economic concerns continue, there is a new UK government, and the devolved Welsh Assembly Government is restructuring. This latter move includes a total rethink of Wales’ business support, and in July 2010, the Assembly published ‘Economic Renewal: a new direction’. This strategic planrecognises the sector’s economic significance and formally identifies life science as a priority sector for investment.

Currently the life science sector in Wales is worth more than £1.3billion to the economy, generated by 323 companies, who employ over 15,000 people. 2/3 of these companies produce medical devices. 80% are SMEs with less than 250 employees.Once public sector and academic jobs are factored in, these figures are considerably greater.

Globally, the life science sector’s med tech industry is set to grow by 10% per annum in the next 5-6 years. The drivers behind this are strong: people are ageing, putting pressure on the human body to keep going that much longer. Rates of cancer, dementia, and chronic care come hand in hand with this phenomenon, giving the broader life science industry much more food for thought. Changing demographics however are not the only driver of sector growth. Economic development in China, India and the Middle East and advances in communication technologies, such as the internet, are raising people’s standards and expectations of healthcare. These developments are creating a pull for modern, efficient medical technologies and this is largely what will drive the growth of the global healthcare market.

In Wales, for the sector to continue succeeding, the current wealth of activity must be supported and continue into the new political and financial era. During these frugal times, industry stakeholders will need to invest in themselves, so that the life science industry remains an attractive investment prospect when premium funding opportunities return.

MediWales, the Welsh life science forum, aims to be the driving force behind voicing the need for government support, simultaneously providing a platform for organisations to collaborate. With this sentiment in mind, MediWales has formed the Life Science Advisory Panel. Made up of senior industrialists, leading clinicians and academics, this group of experts gives guidance and sector insight, assisting MediWales to inform and influence Government.

This advisory panel is partly the result of MediWales’s initiative to improve access for companies seeking clinical expertise. Meetings have been facilitated with key ABC (academic, business and clinicical) stakeholders in life science to discuss opportunities to improve technology adoption into the NHS. 

MediWales gathered evidence for the clinical access initiative from its membership, who were asked to provide case studies for their successes and frustrations experienced developing and selling their products in partnership with the NHS. The resounding reply was that if accessing clinical expertise throughout the product development process could be improved, then companies could financially prosper. The on-going clinical access initiative and the newly established advisory group seek to address these issues, in order to create valuable opportunities for each of the stakeholder communities.

For MediWales, the clinical access project has resulted in a much closer relationship with the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research (NISCHR). NISCHR is the Welsh Assembly Government department responsible for policy and strategy of health and social care research and development. Recently, NISCHR has initiated discussions with MediWales to ensure that the requirements and capabilities of the medical technology industry are taken into account within the R&D strategy. 

The development of such relationships and advisory groups highlights another of Wales’s strengths. Key opinion leaders in the Welsh Assembly Government, clinicians (including consultants, procurement nurses and clinical researchers), academics, and industry are able to meet and discuss important issues that affect the sector. The ease with which this occurred is due to good communication networks but also a by-product of a devolved health service and a relatively small nation, which makes high level access across interest groups that much easier. Interest groups such as these illustrate that Wales is able to communicate with little bureaucracy and create working partnerships harder to achieve in the wider UK. As a result, Wales has a unique opportunity to create successful clinical pathways and systems of its own if it takes advantage of the benefits size and devolution brings.

Underpinning the success of strong networks and collaboration, Wales has a vibrant manufacturing base; a large number of innovative medical device companies; world-renowned academic institutions; and academic and clinical centres of excellence.

These strengths, combined with the effects of the sector mapping project, the clinical access initiative and the new Life Science Expert Advisory Panel, has made Wales and the sector an exciting and vibrant environment to work in. Confident and self-aware of its own strengths, there is an understanding of how things currently stand, which helps to set goals and targets for the future.

In order to promote what is best for the sector, the sector’s value and position year on year needs to be identified. To this end, MediWales will be updating the Welsh Assembly Government, Department of Technology and Innovation’s 2009 bioscience sector mapping figures, which include information on all the companies and NHS and academic groups that operate within the sector. In times where resources are scarce, and future funding is uncertain, it is more important than ever for industry to have current data to support funding applications.

The Welsh bioscience’s successes have been highlighted, but the sector is also honest about where it needs to improve. The deep-routed networks and willingness by key players to implement change show that the sector is proactive, not just reactive to problems. As Wales takes advantage of its skills and opportunities, there will be a multiple pay-off: enormous potential for improved healthcare, reduced costs, economic benefits, and increased inward investment. The unique and sustained identity of Wales as a small, but clever devolved nation, places the country in a position to push Bioscience as Wales’s strongest sector.