Proteins and partnerships: a base for growth

Let’s get the name clear: Cambridge Research Biochemicals (CRB) is a proud Teesside company and it’s not based in Cambridge.

Its roots, though, do lie in the university city: CRB was founded in Cambridge in the 1980s as a pioneer business in the early years of the emerging biotechnology industry.

After passing through several corporate hands, the company was bought out by two women, Emily Humphrys and Alison White in 2000. The duo had met ten years earlier while working at what was then ICI. And to this day they remain the 50/50 joint owners and executive directors of CRB.

“It was a little gem,” says Humphrys, “but it didn’t fit the corporate ownership; it was a biology business owned by process chemists.”

Over the 14 years, they have seen a great deal of change. Biotechnology has become a mature industry. In a field where CRB was once a pioneer, there are now plenty of high-volume, low-cost manufacturers.

CRB makes peptides and antibodies – different forms of proteins – for medical research purposes. Their customers are the R&D departments of large pharmaceutical companies and academic institutes.

Discovering how proteins work and how they help the body fight disease and infection is crucial for furthering medical research, drug development and health care provision. CRB’s products are not sold to be used directly on patients – they are purely for research. “We make rare, unique, made-to-order products,” says Humphrys.

Growth strategies

Now the company is exploring several pathways to growth – through joint research projects, exporting and new partnerships.

The platform for these expansion plans was laid with the purchase and relocation to new premises at Belasis Hall Technology Park in Billingham. The company was awarded a Let’s Grow grant of £65,000 from the Regional Growth Fund programme.

The new headquarters are based in an Enterprise Zone, which means that it is business rate-free for five years. With a three-year payback on the renovation work, CRB will have an invaluable couple of years of rent-free occupation – which means that funds can be channelled into its growth initiatives. “We needed to expand and the Let’s Grow grant really helped as a catalyst,” says Humphrys.

CRB acquired the building in September 2013 and renovation work started in October. It took just 100 days to turn the shell of a 1980s building into a fully equipped set of laboratories and offices. “This gives us a chance to grow,” says Humphrys.

There are plenty of options. One strategy is to find new things that the company can make to order. CRB is working with the Medical Research Council to develop a new product. “We could be only the second company in the world to start making it, which is very exciting,” says Humphrys.

Another is to boost its distribution firepower. CRB has recently struck a global supply and marketing agreement with UK corporation Key Organics to do just that.

Third, CRB is actively developing its European business. Humphrys says that there are “positive signs” in Scandinavia and Switzerland, both of which are homes to global pharmaceutical giants and reputable, well-funded medical research institutes.

When it comes to export, Humphrys enthuses about UKTI. She has been on two trade missions – to Sweden and Japan – and both have led to new business. “I am a big fan. They have been quite wonderful and have really helped us.

“We use their resources as much as possible. You have got to get to know their local people, and receive all of their alerts. I think it’s a company’s duty to keep up the contact. You have to give something back in order to be remembered.”