Small businesses the ‘bedrock’ that allow for innovation

By Ben Hargreaves contact

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/Francescoch)
(Image: Getty/Francescoch)

Related tags: SME, Catapult, Uk

There are 1,500 SME medicine discovery companies in the UK and more than half are working on non-small molecule therapeutics, a Catapult report finds.

The Catapult network released a report​ calling attention to the work carried out by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), focusing on early-stage drug candidate development, in the UK.

There are 1,500 medicine discovery-focused SMEs across the UK industry, which is made up of 1,200 ‘service and supply’ companies and 300 ‘core’ companies. This excludes cell and gene therapy focused companies, which are supported by the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult​.

Service companies
Image: Catapult Medicines Discovery

Therapy focus

The report notes that there has been a shift in the targets that the core companies are working on. Rather than SMEs being primarily focused on the development of small molecule therapeutics, there is a growing focus on biologic therapies, including vaccines, therapeutic proteins, and antibodies.

When cell and gene therapies are taken into account, over 50% of the SMEs are focused on non-small molecule work.

In terms of therapeutic focus, oncology remains the target for many companies, with 38% of drugs produced by SMEs being in this area.

'Big pharma view' from report

"Cancer has demonstrated the progress that can be made when the cause of a disease (genetic mutations) is identified and becomes affordable to study at massive scale. How can the research community replicate this in cardiac disease or CNS disease by mapping the signatures of disease at a cellular level? The infrastructure and technologies that drive this understanding may not be in small companies and are often better suited to precompetitive, charitable, or government funding, but they are the bedrock that allow innovation."

The largest area beyond oncology is within infectious diseases, however, the report notes that commercialising such drugs is difficult.

The report states, “In contrast to oncology drugs, uncertain pricing and the adoption of new anti-infective treatments as a ‘last resort’ means they are perceived to have a low market potential. This makes securing venture capital funding challenging.”

The reason that anti-infectives is a comparatively large focus area, despite these difficulties, is due to the UK government’s initiatives to combat the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Drugs by therapy
Image: Catapult Medicines Discovery


According to a breakdown by the report, SMEs are directly responsible for employing 21,000 people across the country. Most of the companies employ four or fewer employees, which the report states increased the necessity for efficient networking to support capabilities.

The report notes that a further 33,000 job could be generated in this area by 2025, projecting that this will likely come from larger SME service and supply companies.

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