No one said being a bio-entrepreneur would be easy. Raising sufficient finance to get started may be the first major hurdle, but finding suitable, affordable and fully-fitted premises is much harder than many realise.

This is underlined by the Government’s January announcement of investment in Oxfordshire totalling £1.2bn, around £67m of which will be invested in expanding the science hubs in Begbrooke, Harwell, Culham and Milton Park.

Until these premises become available, suitable space for start-up and emerging life sciences companies will remain at a premium.

Milton Park-based Chroma Therapeutics capitalised on its changing fortunes to offer a home to bioscience companies Karus Therapeutics, Carbosynth and most recently, Immunocore and NeuroBio.

Chroma chief executive Richard Bungay said: “This building was originally leased to Oxford GlycoSciences (OGS), taken over by Celltech in 2003.

“OGS’s chief scientific officer, Dr Raj Parekh, moved to Abingworth Ventures who were then seed investors in Chroma.

At the time, Chroma had just six staff. With Dr Parekh as Chairman, new management and the financial support of Abingworth and new investors, Chroma grew very rapidly.

“By 2004, we had 25 people and needed new premises. That is when we took on the lease of this current building.”

Over the next seven years, Chroma established a broad and productive research team working on its original chromatin biology technology platform, and on a single late stage lead clinical programme licensed from Vernalis.

Mr Bungay added: “This created a dual draw on our finances. When the 2008 recession hit, we were less than a year away from a planned initial public offering. All that disappeared and we had to change tack to a business development and licensing strategy.

“A collaborative deal signed in 2009 with GSK to develop novel macrophage-targeted drugs using our technology platform brought potential revenues up to a headline value of £1bn. 2011 saw us enter a collaborative deal with Cell Therapeutics to develop and commercialise our lead agent, a first in class tumour selective oral anti-cancer therapy.

“These deals did not generate enough money to fully finance the company’s operations. By summer 2012, we made the difficult decision to shut down research. We went quickly from 55 back to six people, becoming a semi-virtual company that is now pre-clinical and clinical development for our partners.

“The bioincubator idea was blatantly obvious. We had a building with a lot of different types of laboratories. There was no available lab space on the park at the time.

“And we had seen the success of Milton Park’s office-based Innovation Centre. There really was not much missing in our repertoire that someone would need.

“OBN and MEPC have been very helpful introducing us to companies that want to come to the park. The building is now full.”

What does the future hold for other bioscience companies looking to set up in the area?

As part of a recently announced round of Enterprise Zone grants, Milton Park will receive up to £7m to support the development of a 40,000 sq ft specialist science centre for small and growing businesses within the life sciences sector. The balance of funding will be provided by park owners MEPC.

Philip Campbell, MEPC head of leasing and development said: “When the Enterprise Zone grant scheme was announced last year, it gave us an opportunity to work with other Oxfordshire partners and apply for funding for a facility the science community really needed.

“Although there was clearly a pent-up demand, it has been hard to see how such a facility could be commercially viable. The Government’s matched funding changed the game. The Milton Science Centre (MSc) will be about 40,000 sq ft — nearly twice the size of the Chroma building.

The concept is likely to be slightly different from the accepted view of a bioincubator. We will create unique and shared facilities for a mix of start-ups, small and growing companies acting like an accelerator.

“MEPC will provide the land and build the facility. The Government’s money will effectively cover the cost of the specialist science kit.”

Jon Rees, OBN’s chief executive officer said: “The provision of affordable pre-fitted laboratory facilities for start-up and emerging life sciences is long overdue.

“We have continually highlighted this priority since we first flagged that existing facilities were nearly full five years ago. Local companies should now be able to stay and grow here instead of going being forced to move elsewhere.

“Also, companies interested in establishing a base in this world-class cluster now have more options. The Milton Science Centre, as it will be known, will be the first new facility to come online.

“It will strengthen the local life sciences cluster, provide jobs and generate tax revenues, locally and nationally. Our next task is to assess when the succeeding phase of infrastructure investment will be needed.” * This page is compiled by OBN: Supporting Emerging Companies