‘Unicorns locked out’: Lab shortage threatens Oxbridge life science growth

Oxford life science Image credit: Matej Kastelic via Shutterstock

The thriving life sciences industry in Oxford and Cambridge is at risk of experiencing a growth slowdown as laboratory space becomes increasingly hard to find, according to new data.

The ‘Oxford-Cambridge’ arc has become a global hub for life science investment and innovation, due in part to the prestigious universities in the area.

However, data collected by property consultancy firm Bidwells found that availability for labs in the area was close to zero in June, while the demand for space surged by a quarter in the first half of 2022.

The limited space in the area could see investors looking to other cities rich in life science institutions in Europe or the US.

“The government has grand ambitions to transform Britain into a scientific superpower, but the Oxford-Cambridge arc is at threat of becoming a victim of its own meteoric rise, with the unicorns of tomorrow increasingly being locked out of mission-critical R&D space,” said Sue Foxley, research director at Bidwells.

Foxley said the current lab shortage situation was the worst she had seen as companies scramble to find space.

Looking beyond Oxbridge for life science hubs

While Oxbridge is seen as the most significant UK hub for life sciences, there has been significant investment elsewhere in the country this year that could ease the pressure put on the region.

Asset management company UBS recently agreed to a £900m plan to create one of Europe’s largest life sciences hubs, located in Stevenage. The labs will be built on land owned by pharmaceutical giant GSK, which believes the Hertfordshire town could rival the likes of Oxford and Cambridge.

Earlier this year, Manchester-based VC Praetura Ventures launched a £20m life sciences fund, with plans to invest in the burgeoning life sciences hub in northern England. The fund was made to invest in life science startups across Manchester, Cheshire, and Warrington.

Government ministers have continuously debated prioritising the growth of existing hubs versus helping the rest of the country as part of its ‘levelling up’ policy.

Former chancellor Philip Hammond criticised Boris Johnson’s government earlier this year for scrapping a plan to turn Oxbridge into a tech rival to California’s Silicon Valley.

The plan was reportedly axed due to it not meeting the levelling up priorities.