From new molecules to new markets

Talk about a long-term business. A new medicine can take more than 12 years to develop. The R&D required before it can be licensed for use by patients can cost more than £1bn.

For any one marketed medicine that makes enough money to pay for its development, around 25,000 chemical compounds will have been tested. Of those, probably just 25 of these will have gone into clinical trials and only five will have received approval for marketing.

At the beginning of this lengthy and expensive journey is the drug discovery process, where complex molecules that might  form the active ingredient of a new medicine are designed, synthesised and then tested.

A growing proportion of this R&D work has been outsourced by the large pharmaceutical companies in their drive to reduce costs and improve productivity. As a result, new companies that focus solely on drug discovery have emerged.

But drug discovery is not an easy area in which to start a business. It requires high-class research brains, long time horizons and expensive equipment – not the usual list of requirements for a start-up. But in 2004, Simon Hirst did just that*.

Today Sygnature Discovery, the company he started, employs 130 staff including 77 chemists and 22 in vitro biologists. Approximately 75 per cent of the workforce have PhDs.

Sygnature has become the UK’s largest independent drug discovery company. The growth has been entirely organic and self-funded; by continually reinvesting its profits, buying the very latest technology and hiring top-class scientists, the company remains ahead.

“We don’t compete on price,” says Sygnature’s VP of business development Paul Clewlow, “we compete on the quality of our science and the value we provide from our intellectual input into a project.”

Since its formation, Sygnature’s scientists have been cited as inventors in over 50 pharmaceutical patents filed by clients. Five molecules invented at its Nottingham laboratory are now in clinical trials.

While it has notable expertise in certain diseases, such as cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Sygnature’s expertise extends into areas such as neuro-degeneration, psychiatry, antibiotics and pain.

The company has been international from its early days. One of its first projects was in California; it signed up to the UKTI Passport to Export programme for first time exporters in 2005 – its second year of being in business.

Over the past two years, international sales have increased by 58 per cent, accounting for £3.3m of Sygnature’s £8.5m turnover. Sygnature was ranked 50th in the recent Sunday Times BT Business Fast Track SME Export 100, which was supported by the Business is GREAT campaign.

To achieve this level of success the company’s scientists and business development team travel the globe. This month, for example, that takes in Boston, Philadelphia, Berlin, Tokyo and Strasbourg.

“Being out and about internationally is the way we go about our business,” says Dr Clewlow. Currently, the company is very focused on developing its US business in the three major life science hubs of Boston, San Diego and San Francisco and is starting to explore new business in Malaysia and Brazil.

Sygnature is a consistent user of UKTI services. Representatives have been on trade missions to countries such as Sweden, Germany and Israel. It has used the UKTI Tradeshow Access Programme, which provides financial support for companies to attend key international trade shows.

“UKTI provide us with local knowledge around the world, and there are grants and funding schemes that we can tap in order to make these visits,” says Clewlow.

Currently, Sygnature is studying Japan as a potential new market. The Japanese pharmaceutical industry could be very interesting to us, says Clewlow, “and we would certainly seek the insights and help of UKTI here.”

“We like to fly the flag,” he adds. “The UK is a great place for drug discovery.”

These are exciting times. A new headquarters is being constructed; Sygnature will be the anchor tenant in Nottingham’s new biosciences hub. Employee numbers are set to increase above 200 staff in the foreseeable future. “We are looking to recruit top-class scientific talent from across the world  to Nottingham,” says Clewlow.

Sygnature’s reputation is growing, he adds. More business is coming via word of mouth. “We have an ambitious three year plan and are forecasting sustained growth.”

That has the ring of a healthy long-term business.


Whether you want to start or grow your exports, find opportunities, events and practical guidance on the Exporting is GREAT site.

* Photograph of Simon Hirst and fellow scientists by Matthew Page.