Cambridge firm targets medical robot boom – but will it stay British?

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Cambridge firm targets medical robot boom – but will it stay British?


isIn an old, unpretentious two-story chicken coop in a business park near Cambridge, a four-limbed creature performs an elaborate dance. Versius, the first UK-built surgical robot, is used in the NHS and hospitals around the world, typically to perform abdominal, urological and gynecological procedures. A surgeon can sit in front of his 3D screen and operate the robot by manipulating two joysticks.

“Cambridge is a great place to do tech,” says Luke Hares, chief technology officer at CMR Surgical, the company behind Versius. CMR has grown rapidly since its inception in 2016 and today employs 750 people. As it ramps up its exports, with dozens of its $ 1 million to $ 1.5 million (£ 750,000 to £ 1.1 million) robots lined up and awaiting shipment to company headquarters, it has just announced that it will open another factory in the nearby town of Ely to more than triple. manufacturing capacity.

This is exactly the kind of business Chancellor Rishi Sunak was referring to in his Conservative Party conference address in Manchester this month, when he said: ‘We are going to make this country not just a superpower. science… we’re going to make the UK the most exciting place on earth.

Hares says he built a one-armed wooden model of Versius in a weekend, but it took 18 months to develop a four-armed prototype. Finding funders was even more difficult. He underlines “the importance of luck in the chain of events”, referring to a chance meeting with CMR’s first backer, Norwegian investor Per Methi, in a patent law firm. Methi remains a major shareholder and a member of the board of directors of the company. “Either it was going to be huge or it was going to fail. There’s a level of serendipity that’s important, ”Hares says.

What sets Versius apart from other surgical robots, according to CMR CEO Per Vegard Nerseth, is that it can deploy up to four arms that move independently of each other, rather than coming out of a single one. arm. Each holds an instrument like a pen and moves like a human wrist. Unlike heavier robots, Versius can be moved easily between operating theaters, reducing the cost per procedure for hospitals. It is generally used on a subscription basis.

The robot in production in Cambridge. Photographie : Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Versius is targeting a booming market: Analysts predict the global medical robotics market to reach $ 20 billion by 2025, up from $ 6 billion today. Martin Frost, co-founder and serial entrepreneur of CMR, spoke about the company’s ambition to enter the top tier of the global medical device industry. The company recently raised $ 600 million, which it says is the industry’s largest-ever private financing round.

Yet for all of Sunak’s hype and Frost’s ambition, there is one particular British disease standing in the way. About six miles away, on the other side of Cambridge, is the headquarters of Arm, the chip designer which was bought by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank for $ 32 billion in 2016 and is being sold to the American Nvidia. Britain is increasingly known as a place that breeds promising startups but sells out too early, (usually) letting overseas buyers take them to the mega-business stage.

The latest example is GW Pharmaceuticals, the Cambridge-headquartered cannabis drug pioneer, which was acquired by a U.S. company for $ 7.2 billion in February. “As soon as these companies show a glimmer of success, they are bought out by much larger companies,” said Paul Cuddon, life science analyst at Numis Securities. “The most successful businesses may not have enough time to build a bigger business. “

CMR’s Nerseth mentions the lack of automation in the UK, which is holding back manufacturing. Other small business owners cite the problems of raising seed money and “touring friends and family,” which is really only an option for the wealthy.

In a 2018 ‘hub no spokes’ speech, the then Chief Economist of the Bank of England Andy Haldane spoke of the small number of top performing companies in the UK and the long lag behind underperforming companies. Referring to research and development, he said: “The UK is doing R well, as a leading innovation hub. But it hurts D.

Haldane identified a number of factors, including the slow adoption of new technologies, weaker management skills and fewer financing options for small businesses than in Germany, for example. The UK has set up its own equivalent of the German Fraunhofer Institutes, called Catapult Centers, to create a new innovation infrastructure, but there are far fewer of them.

Versius is typically used in abdominal, urological, and gynecological procedures. Photographie : Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Experts, including Cuddon, say start-up funding has improved in recent years. The UK and Ireland attract significantly more VC funds than the rest of Europe – € 14.6 billion (£ 12.3 billion) in the first six months of 2021, as much as the 2020 total, according to PitchBook figures.

The latest generation of successful UK life science firms include DNA and RNA sequencing company Oxford Nanopore, whose market value jumped to nearly £ 5 billion when it debuted at London at the end of September. A day later, Exscientia, which uses artificial intelligence to develop drugs, scorned London and floated on the Nasdaq in New York at $ 2.9 billion, ending the day at $ 3.5 billion.

Analysts say U.S. investors are more willing to back nascent biotech companies on an often bumpy road, with clinical trial setbacks along the way. “Investors are very hesitant about risk at the clinical stage,” says Cuddon.

Another problem is that UK R&D spending, which totaled £ 38.5 billion in 2019, is among the lowest among OECD countries as a percentage of GDP. British Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng recently drew up a plan to help the UK “keep pace in the global race for innovation”. This includes increasing annual public investment in R&D to £ 22bn, from nearly £ 15bn in 2021-2022. The government aims to increase public and private investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, up from 1.7% in 2019.

The Nanopore float could be a turning point, as it “effectively sends a signal that you can sign up in the UK and get support,” says Adam Barker, life sciences analyst at Shore Capital. “The UK can certainly grow, but it may need reform. “

Large UK life science companies

AstraZeneca The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker successfully resisted a £ 70 billion takeover approach from US rival Pfizer in 2014, and last year bought US rare disease specialist Alexion for $ 39 billion. AZ’s market value soared to £ 136 billion, nearly double the size of UK rival GSK.

GSK Founded from the 2000 merger of SmithKline Beecham and GlaxoWellcome, GSK is the UK’s second largest drug manufacturer. It plans to separate its consumer health branch from the main pharmaceutical and vaccine activities next June.

Vector The asthma inhaler maker agreed to a controversial £ 1.1 billion takeover by cigarette company Philip Morris International in September.

GW Pharmaceutical GW was acquired by US-based Jazz Pharmaceuticals for $ 7.2 billion in February. He developed the world’s first cannabis drug, a multiple sclerosis drug called Sativex, and another drug called Epidiolex to treat childhood epilepsy.

BTG The London-based company, known for its Varisolve product for varicose veins, snake venom antidotes and cancer portfolio, was sold to Boston Scientific for $ 4.2 billion last November.

County Known for its ADHD hyperactivity drug Adderall and its rare disease portfolio, in 2018 it agreed to a £ 46 billion takeover by Japan’s Takeda, one of the largest pharmaceutical deals ever.

Celltech Slough-based Celltech was sold to Belgian UCB for £ 1.5 billion in 2004, at a time when it was Britain’s largest biotech company. He is best known for his hay fever tablet Zyrtec.

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