The 'new' AstraZeneca emerges in Cambridge

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AstraZeneca is investing US$500 million for a new purpose-built global R&D and corporate headquarters in Cambridge.

The facility, which when completed in 2018 will house over 2,000 people, is located within the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, recognised as one of the largest health and medical research precincts in the world.

The precinct is undergoing a substantial expansion with AstraZeneca's new facility at its centre, surrounded by a range of new and existing buildings housing a combination of public and private health and research facilities.

BiotechDispatch recently attended AstraZeneca's International Media Day in Cambridge, during which the company showcased the new facility slowly emerging within the campus.

It is difficult to explain the overall scale from an Australian perspective.

In simple terms, the public and private investment, which will support the work of thousands of scientists, is in the billions. Its physical scale and contemporary feel is a remarkable contrast to the nearby centre of Cambridge, which houses one of the world's oldest and most iconic universities.

More importantly, and of interest from an Australian perspective, is the integration of the public and private investment and work already being planned and undertaken within the campus.

Of interest because Australia is still grappling with barriers to commercialisation of R&D - successive governments and reports have identified multiple barriers, including the availability of venture capital, the lack of integration between public and private, and even a cultural aversion to the commercial in some research institutes and universities.

A range of policies have been implemented in an attempt to overcome the issue. Most recently, the Turnbull government has directed the first investment from the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund to a Biomedical Translation Fund, designed to support a small number of companies further along the commercialisation pathway.

One of the obvious observations about Cambridge is that questions of translation appear largely irrelevant when one of the world's leading commercialisers of health and medical research has such an institutionalised presence within the R&D community.

Maybe this stands in contrast to Australia where commercialisation is sometimes seen as an add-on or even in conflict with the best interests of basic R&D.

This attitude has even been reflected in at least one government review of health and medical research - terms of reference focussed on promoting commercialisation but an expert panel absent any representation from industry.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot and Dr Mene Pangalos, the company's head of R&D, discussed the philosophy behind the company's decision in 2013 to move its entire UK-based R&D operation to Cambridge.

Both were very clear in their desire for AstraZeneca to be located in close proximity to some of the world's leading medical researchers - not a short drive away, but within walking distance and even co-located.

They simply wanted the company to be in a better position to access the best science, with a strategic focus on developing innovative medicines rather than extracting further value from its existing portfolio.

Yet the level of integration goes beyond the physical location of buildings.

According to Dr Pangalos, around 20 per cent of the scientists working in the new AstraZeneca facility will not actually be company employees. "They will be from the university, research institutes or other partners. The important thing is it will not be obvious who works for who because they will be working on shared projects."

He adds that, unlike in Boston, where at least a dozen companies compete for access to the best science, AstraZeneca is virtually alone in Cambridge.

It is all about working closely with scientists, says Dr Pangalos. Even the new facility's design promotes integration, making heavy use of glass to emphasise openness and transparency, with the public and people working in nearby buildings encouraged to treat the facility positioned in the centre of the Precinct as a virtual thoroughfare and meeting place.

BiotechDispatch attended AstraZeneca's International Media Day thanks to the support of the company.