Tackling the Challenges

Dr Nicola Heron, Chief Strategy Officer, MDC

17 June 2024

Nicola has over 27 years of life sciences experience, from holding senior positions across the public and private sectors in organisations including AstraZeneca and the NHS. With an extensive track record encompassing research to commercialisation in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics, Nicola brings wide-ranging expertise and insight to her role as Chief Strategy Officer at MDC.

In this blog, Nicola focuses on the important issues facing our sector and how we may best address those key challenges through collaboration.


The life sciences sector is a critical industry for the UK – one with immense potential, an amazing array of talent and a genuine ambition to be world leaders in our field.

The sector’s story is one of growth. With around 7,000 life sciences companies in the UK including some 500 therapeutic developers – roughly 50% of them being early stage SMEs – we have a vibrant, forward-reaching medicines discovery community.

However, the economic impact of the past 18 months has resulted in parts of the sector facing significant challenges, that must be addressed now.

From MDC’s extensive research activities, such as surveys, interviews and workshops, we have learned much about the issues and ambitions from large pharma, SMEs, CROs and charities. This research provides insight into possible solutions for the future.

The Three Major Challenges

Increasing costs and difficulty accessing funding are big issues for smaller organisations such as early-stage SMEs. Investments are high risk, and grant funding is increasingly competitive among high-quality grant applications. The power of partnerships has the potential to boost funding success for these companies.

Skills shortages are felt keenly across the entire life sciences landscape – a severe block to growth that must be addressed as a priority.

A problem for virtually all life sciences organisations is limited access to lab space, equipment and specialist services. The issue is acutely felt for smaller companies in particular, but one where solutions are beginning to come forward.

Smaller early-stage SMEs are being hit hardest by the three major challenges, yet these companies are vital to the future of medicines discovery. More needs to be done to build their resilience. A focus on helping these companies develop the data to de-risk their asset will benefit innovators, investors, patients and our industry. If companies are going to fail, they need to fail because the hypothesis didn’t work, not because they never had the chance to test it. This is a waste and an inefficient use of brilliant scientists in this country.

Potential Solutions

If all parts of the ecosystem can work together to solve issues in coordinated ways, all of us will benefit. Here are five key areas to focus our joint efforts and ideas on:

  • Fostering partnerships
  • Provide high-quality lab facilities and incubator spaces
  • Develop the capability and capacity to provide relevant skills at scale
  • Nurture great scientists and future leaders by developing all the abilities that contribute to success
  • Make funds available, visible, and accessible. Support companies in becoming fit-to-fund and ready-to-win investments as it becomes more available

Supporting our sector’s ideas, developing pipelines that deliver for patients, giving investors de-risked and attractive opportunities, encouraging diversity… becoming the global superpower in life sciences will require solutions driven by collaboration.

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