If you're looking for a sunny, optimistic take on AstraZeneca's move to Cambridge in the UK, the Telegraph has it for you right here. It's a rousing, bullish take on the whole Cambridge scene, but as John Carroll points out at FierceBiotech, it does leave out a few things about AZ. First, though, the froth:
George Freeman MP. . . the Coalition's adviser on life sciences, and Dr Andy Richards, boss of the Cambridge Angels, who has funded at least 20 of the city's start–ups, are among its champions.
"The big pharmaceutical model is dead, we have to help the big companies reinvent themselves," said Freeman. "Cambridge is leading the way on how do this, on research and innovation."
The pair are convinced that the burgeoning "Silicon Fen" is rapidly becoming the global centre of pharma, biotech, and now IT too. Richards says the worlds of bioscience and IT are "crashing together" and revolutionising companies and consumers. Tapping his mobile phone, he says: "This isn't just a phone, it could hold all sorts of medical information, too, on your agility and reactions. This rapid development is what it's all about."
. . .St John's College set up another park where Autonomy started and more than 50 companies are now based. As we pass, on cue a red Ferrari zooms out. "We didn't see Ferraris when I was a boy," says Freeman. "Just old academics on their bikes."
He adds: "That's the great thing about tech, you can suddenly get it, make it commercial and you've got £200m. You don't have to spend four generations of a German family building Mittelstand."
I don't doubt that Cambridge is doing well. There are a lot of very good people in the area, and some very good ideas and companies. But I do doubt that Cambridge is becoming the global hub of pharma, biotech, and IT all at the same time. And that "crashing together" stuff is the kind of vague rah-rah that politicians and developers can spew out on cue. It sounds very exciting until you start asking for details. And it's not like they haven't heard that sort of thing before in Britain. Doesn't anyone remember the "white heat" of the new technological revolution of the 1960s?
But the future of Cambridge and the future of AstraZeneca may be two different things. Specifically, Pascal Soirot of AZ is quoted in the Telegraph piece as saying that "We've lost some of our scientific confidence," and that the company is hoping to get it back by moving to the area. Let's take a little time to think about that statement, because the closer you look at it, the stranger it is. It assumes that (A) there is such a thing as "scientific confidence", and (B) that it can be said to apply to an entire company, and (C) that a loss of it is what ails AstraZeneca, and (D) that one can retrieve it by moving the whole R&D site to a hot site.
Now, assumption (A) seems to me to be the most tenable of the bunch. I've written about that very topic here. It seems clear to me that people who make big discoveries have to be willing to take risks, to look like fools if they're wrong, and to plunge ahead through their own doubts and those of others. That takes confidence, sometimes so much that it rubs other people the wrong way.
But do these traits apply to entire organizations? That's assumption (B), and there things get fuzzy. There do seem to be differences in how much risk various drug discovery shops are willing to take on, but changing a company's culture has been the subject of so many, many management books that it's clearly not something that anyone knows how to do well. The situation is complicated by the disconnects between the public statements of higher executives about the spirits and cultures of their companies, versus the evidence on the ground. In fact, the more time the higher-ups spend talking about how incredibly entrepreneurial and focused everyone at the place is, the more you should worry. If everyone's really busy discovering things, you don't have time to wave the pom-poms.
Now to assumption (C), the idea that a lack of such confidence is AstraZeneca's problem. Not being inside the company, I can't speak to that directly, but from outside, it looks like AZ's problem is that they've had too many drugs fail in Phase III and that they've spent way too much money doing it. And it's very hard to say how much of that has been just bad luck, how much of it was self-deception, how much can be put down to compound selection or target selection issues, and so on. Lack of scientific confidence might imply that the company was too cautious in some of these areas, taking too long for things that wouldn't pay off enough. I don't know if that's what Pascal Soirot is trying to imply; I'm not all that sure that he knows, himself.
This brings us to assumption (D), Getting One's Mojo Back through a big move. I have my suspicions about this strategy from the start, since it's the plot of countless chick-lit books and made-for-cable movies. But I'll wave away the fumes of incense and suntan oil, avert my eyes from the jump cuts of the inspirational montage scenes, and move on to asking how this might actually work. You'd think that I might have some idea, since I actually work in Cambridge in the US, where numerous companies are moving in for just these sorts of stated reasons. They're not totally wrong. Areas like the two Cambridges, the San Francisco Bay area, and a few others do have things going for them. My own guess is that a big factor is the mobility and quality of the local workforce, and that the constant switching around between the various companies, academic institutions, and other research sites keeps things moving, intellectually. That's a pretty hand-waving way of putting it, but I don't have a better one.
What could be an even bigger factor is a startup culture, the ability of new ideas to get a hearing and get some funding in the real world. That effect, though, is surely most noticeable in the smaller company space - I'm still not sure how it works out for the branch offices of larger firms that locate in to be where things are happening. If I had to guess, I think all these things still help out the larger outfits, but in an attenuated way that is not easy to quantify. And if the culture of the Big Company Mothership is nasty enough to start with, I'm sure it can manage to cancel out whatever beneficial effects might exist.
So I don't know what moving to Cambridge to a big new site is going to do for AstraZeneca. And it's worth remembering that it's going to take several years for any such move to be realized - who knows what will happen between now and then? The whole thing might help, it might hurt, it might make little difference (except in the massive cost and disruption). That disruption might be a feature as much as a bug - if you're trying to shake a place up, you have to shake it up - but I would wonder about anyone who feels confident about how things will actually work out.