British industry has had a rough few years. We are losing the race when it comes to manufacturing cars, textiles and commodities to China, the Far East and Australasia - and let’s face it, our prowess in financial services is looking a little wobbly.
But one area where we’re still outperforming most of the global market is in bio-technology and medical devices; and our exports are booming as a result.
British entrepreneurs have their hands involved in everything from pharmaceutical drugs to prosthetic limbs to pioneering robots - and it’s about to get a whole lot more exciting, thanks to some forthcoming government legislation.
And because we’re world leaders in this space, it’s helping to boost our ailing economy.
According to John Dean, partner at law firm Withers & Rogers, the value of the UK medical device export market was £4bn a year in 2000; as of 2009 the exports of pharmaceuticals and medical technologies were worth more than £24bn.
“Markets such as China greatly value European products over domestic products. The CE mark has great value there, largely because of much higher standards of manufacture in the West, and particularly, in Europe,” Dean added.
In the last budget speech, chancellor George Osborne claimed 20% of the top 100 medicines sold globally were created as a result of research conducted in the UK.
Why are we so good at this?
There are several factors contributing to British success here; good universities, our NHS and the part it plays in providing data and helping to distribute new technology, a collegiate attitude to generating research and development and a number of government incentives.
The Bio Industry Association (BIA), a trade body for bio-technology, told The Huffington Post that the UK was comfortably recognised as one of the top three nations for medical devices and bio-technology because of our universities – 10% of the top medical universities in the world are based in the UK.
A spokesman said: “One of the things that has started to happen is the NHS and the government have become a lot more interested in what the universities are doing.
“The National Institute for Health Research has started connecting biotech companies with academics and hospitals in what’s know as Therapeutic Capability Clusters.”
These clusters encourage the different groups to work together. Unlike in other industries, intellectual property ownership tends not to be as much of an issue in the early stages as there is a lot of sharing of basic intelligence – what’s sometimes called pre-competitive intelligence.
Notable industry bigwigs to join the clusters include AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and UCB.
The academic partners include the Universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester, Southampton, Newcastle, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Queen Mary’s, University of London.
“The government wants the NHS to become a much greater research tool,” the spokesman continued. “It’s got a large amount of data available – there’s a consultation on how best to use that data at the moment.
“The other element is there’s a lot of patients who are happy to put themselves forward for medical trials here – that willingness is replicated globally, but the NHS makes a difference as its an amazing resource with so much data and information available.”
For medical devices too, the NHS input is critical. Withers & Rogers’ Dean said it was vital for clinicians such as surgeons to have familiarity with the equipment they use.
"Having ready access to clinicians is greatly helping research at universities and also within the NHS, which has a considerable research budget,” Dean explained.
“A notable example of university/NHS close collaboration is University College London, which links into the Institute of Ophthalmology, the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital.”
The government has also played a significant role here – as well as a number of monetary pledges - such as investing £310m into supporting the discovery, development and commercialisation of research, introducing a EU VAT cost-sharing exemption and putting a new Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme which offers a 50% income tax relief on investments for smaller high risk early stage companies into place - this year also sees the introduction of the Patent Box.
The Patent Box is designed to encourage companies to bring high-value jobs and activity associated with the development, manufacture and exploitation of patents to the UK, and enhance the UK’s international competitiveness.
For the medical and bio-tech industry, it will particularly aid funding, as one of the proposals will see corporate tax for income from UK patents dropped to just 10% by 2017, rather than the current 24%.
Such was the excitement generated by the news that GlaxoSmithKline announced it would be investing £500m in new facilities, creating 1,000 new jobs, citing the Patent Box as a key factor in the decision.
One of Britain’s biggest success stories in this space is the creation of Humira – a drug now sold by Abbot Laboratories in the US, but discovered in Cambridge.
Humira was developed to treat Rheumatoid arthritis using antibody technology pioneered by Cambridge Antibody Technology.
After an initial launch in 2003, its sales surpassed $1bn (£0.6m) by 2005; and this week the drug became even more valuable after it was approved by the EU as a way to treat Crohn’s disease.
EvaluatePharma's World Preview estimates that Humira will become the world's top drug by 2016.
But it’s not just the superbrands that are performing well – small venture capitalist start-ups are reaping the benefits too.
Tissue Regenix is a regenerative medical devices company that uses animal or human tissue to replace damaged or worn out parts of the human body.
The brainchild of Professor Eileen Ingham and Professor John Fisher from the University of Leeds, the company specialises in the process of tissue decellularisation.
This is where animal or human tissue has all of its cells removed, leaving just a ‘scaffold’, which can be implanted on the body to encourage it to regenerate without the fear of tissue rejection.
This pioneering process is currently being developed for use in heart valves, vein repairs, skin replacements and cartilage tears.
Last year it raised £25m through private investors and institutional money from Invesco Asset Management.
The potential for this market is huge; advanced wound care alone (such as the treatment of large ulcers) already has estimated revenues of £3.2bn a year globally.
These are just two of hundreds of British firms operating in this industry.
Provided the funding for research and development continues to come in through government assistance and private investors, the UK will continue to be recognised as one of the greatest unsung export heroes in Britain.