Space: the final frontier

Niall Martin, COO of Mission Therapeutics, is stumped. This comes as little surprise given his company’s business is “developing small molecule drugs to target deubiquitinating enzymes involved in the DNA damage response, with the aim of inducing synthetic lethality”. But that’s not the problem. It’s space. “We’ve got 35 people and we could expand. We’re looking to get finance, we’re looking at grants and deals with other companies, and all of those are bringing in headcount. We could go to 45 within the next few months but we just don’t have the space to do that.”
This is the challenge facing many SME firms in the UK life sciences industry, the subject of this special report for Estates Gazette. The government wants the UK to become the global hub for life sciences, a sprawling £868bn mega-sector spanning pharmaceuticals, medical technology and biotechnology and encompassing everything from hospital equipment and prosthetic limbs to drug development and gene therapy. But SMEs are the lifeblood of the industry, and if they can’t find suitable lab space, they can’t grow. The fundamental problem seems to be reconciling biotech’s dynamism with property investors’ craving for certainty. Laboratories are expensive to build and highly specialised for different fields, but corporate life cycles are short and unpredictable. Firms may swell exponentially when their eureka moment arrives, or disband overnight if it turns into a dead end. So what’s the answer? I spoke to people across the property and life sciences sectors trying to make a breakthrough.

Estates Gazette Life Sciences report

Cars, jewellery, Black Sabbath… prosthetic limbs

The Midlands is renowned for its metal exports in many forms. What is less well known is that it’s the UK’s medical technology heartland, which means it produces quite a lot of hospital equipment and orthopaedic devices too. Medtech is an £18bn subsector of the UK’s life sciences industry, and together, the West and East Midlands are home to 30% of companies. In this piece for Estates Gazette, I interviewed Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham city council, about his mission to raise the region’s medtech profile and the £800m property portfolio he’s identified to do it.

What if the press got hold of it?

Managing conflicts of interest is a fundamental ethical challenge for the surveying profession, and one that arises on a daily basis at firms large and small, as I found out for this business advice piece for Modus magazine. Impartiality has never been more important, or more under scrutiny: the internet and a relentless 24-hour news cycle have made public life increasingly transparent, while a long list of scandals, from the collapse of Enron to MPs’ expenses and LIBOR rigging, have severely dented confidence in traditional institutions. In response, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is undertaking a major review of its guidelines – conflicts of interest account for a very small number of complaints against RICS members but it expects this to increase as awareness grows. I interviewed its head of regulation about how members can protect themselves, why client consent is not enough, and applying the “Daily Mail test” to every decision.

The new tycoons

I tracked the world’s property wealth to research this infographic for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. By far the greatest concentration is in state hands: the world’s biggest property owners are the growing number of massive sovereign wealth funds and even bigger state pension funds. As of 2015, there were 77 SWFs controlling total assets worth US$7071bn, and by the end of 2013, the world’s 300 largest pension funds held US$14.9trn – two thirds of this in the hands of public institutions. Cross-border investment is an increasingly dominant force across the globe, but especially in London, where three quarters comes from overseas and funds rush from far and wide to cement their wealth in its bricks and mortar. In the capital’s property market, retired American teachers are a surprisingly dominant force, though they face stiff competition from such diverse buyers as Italian insurers, Quebecois developers and future generations of Malaysians…

Modus wealth infographic April 2015

Crossrail: 40 years young

Last year marked an important milestone for Crossrail: its 40th birthday. London’s new east-west link was first proposed in the 1974 London Rail Study, even if it only broke ground 35 years later, after decades of reports, failed legislation and repeated balking at the high costs of the scheme. This is a tediously familiar tale in the recent history of the UK’s transport infrastructure. There has been a consistent lack of political will to push through major projects, leaving strategically important schemes mired in the planning system or dropped abruptly with a change of government. As a result, the UK lags behind other developed nations – ranked ninth overall in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, but only 27th for the quality of its transport network.

Transport is essential to the UK economy, and there is an urgent need for investment in roads, rail and airport capacity to ease congestion, support growth and accommodate 10m additional citizens by 2035. It is a critical juncture for key projects including HS2, Crossrail 2, much-needed rail improvements in the North and airport expansion in the South-East, and if the UK is not to grind to a halt in 20 years’ time, we have to start now. Political consensus and stability will be essential to delivering these aims – but unfortunately, we are a month away from the least predictable general election in decades. In this article on the next government’s transport policy for Estates Gazette, I assessed the prospects for a very uncertain future.

Why some Nigerians won’t buy their clothes in Nigeria

South Africa has a population of 53m and at least 80 grade-A shopping centres over 30,000m2. Nigeria, on the other hand, has around 170m people and just two completed malls to the same standard, neither of which are larger than 25,000m2. This is the kind of statistic that makes real estate investors’ mouths water when they look at Africa, even if many have yet to bite. Foreign direct investment into the continent still accounts for less than 4% of global capital flows, but it has grown steadily to reach US$57bn in 2013. A resource-rich continent greater in size than the US, Canada and China combined, Africa’s development potential is staggering. But while its significant fossil fuel and mineral deposits may have been the main target for foreign investment to date, its real potential lies in its people. In this article for Modus, magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I spoke to investors and surveyors across the continent about the opportunities – and whether Africa’s growing middle classes really want so many new shopping centres.

The secret profession

With a fast-growing membership around the world, the RICS surveying qualification could be considered one of the UK’s most successful education exports. Ten years ago, just 15% of members and candidates were based outside the UK – today, more than a third can be found across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, India and the Americas. But what isn’t changing nearly fast enough is the gender balance of the RICS. Globally, only 16% of members are female and the figure is even lower in the UK, leaving the profession hardly representative of its client base or the populations it serves. In this article for Modus, the RICS magazine, I reported on the institution’s drive to recruit from a broader cross-section of society, making careers in surveying more appealing to school kids and graduates alike – and, crucially, making them aware that surveying exists in the first place.

“We can’t yet say that using five curved shapes and two angular ones gives you this level of productivity, but I like to think we’ll be there in five years”

To the uninitiated, “health, wellbeing and productivity” might sound like an alternate title for the “mind, body, spirit” section of Waterstones. Don’t be fooled: it’s an emphatically evidence-based discipline, with a watertight business case that makes low-energy construction look practically New Age in comparison. There’s a growing body of evidence to show that buildings have a far more subtle impact on their occupants than previously thought – hospital patients with views of nature heal more quickly, office workers with a window seat sleep an average of 46 minutes longer per night and doubling the supply of outdoor air to an office reduces short-term sick leave by 35%.

Companies spend far more on salaries than anything else, so it’s easy to see why some of the property sector’s most influential clients seized have thrown their weight behind a landmark report from the World Green Building Council announcing wellbeing as the next big thing in sustainable building.  Wellbeing is a much more attractive message than the abstinence typically preached by the green movement, and unlike climate change, it’s something that individual organisations can actually do something about. In this feature for Building, I investigated how the wellbeing movement could affect the way buildings are designed and valued, and how exactly you can measure such a nebulous concept in the first place.

CBRE Law in London report 2015

For the second year running, CBRE asked me to contribute to its Law in London report. I researched and wrote material for 22 pages, which involved interviewing legal firms and crunching CBRE’s own extensive data to identify trends in how the sector is occupying space in the capital. Key issues included the need to maintain flexibility as workload increases but fees don’t, and the perennially thorny topic of whether lawyers could ever be persuaded to hotdesk. (Answer: unlikely.)

CBRE Law in London 2015_cover