Sunday, February 8, 2015

AstraZeneca coming to Cambridge: A sign of the times?

Earlier this week, planning permission was granted for AstraZeneca's new Global R&D Centre and Corporate Headquarters at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.  The initial announcement of this plan in 2013 attracted great interest and excitement as it represented a major coup for the region. This seemed to show that Cambridge can not only build £bn companies on the back of its strengths in science and technology, but it can also attract significant direct corporate investment.
Several major corporations have had R&D facilities in Cambridge for many years (PhilipsRolls-RoyceMicrosoftNokia, to name a few) but the scale of the AstraZeneca facility - £330m investment, 2,000 employees - dwarfs many of the earlier investments by large organisations.
The site of the planned AstraZeneca facility at the
Cambridge Biomedical Campus

AstraZeneca states that it believes Cambridge will provide them with "[..] invaluable access to world-leading scientific expertise and provides excellent opportunities for collaboration with renowned academic research institutions, pre-eminent hospitals and cutting-edge biotech companies". This reflects a widespread trend towards more open models of innovation that draw upon the strengths of specific regional clusters. It also reflects a response to specific challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry, where massively increasing R&D spend has not been leading to 'blockbuster' successes in the market. Establishing R&D activities within a thriving regional innovation clusters is one way for firms to form and manage partnerships that allow them to share the risks (but also the rewards) of research commercialisation.

But there are some potential downsides to this move. There is something of a Catch-22 problem: people want to work and live in Cambridge because of the perceived high quality of life. But the sudden arrival of 2,000 new workers (plus dependents probably doubling that number) in a city with a population of 124,000 may start to put strains on the infrastructure (especially transport and housing), thus lowering the very quality of life that made the move attractive in the first place.

As the Cambridge Technopole continues to build upon its success with more successful start-ups and more inwards investment (most recently from Apple and Amazon), the importance of the joined-up long-term strategy for the city's development within the wider region becomes ever more important.