As pharmaceutical companies work towards a vaccine for Covid-19, one of the industry’s major players has confirmed long-running plans for a new research and business hub in the heart of London’s ‘knowledge quarter’.

MSD, the international arm of US-based life sciences giant Merck, confirmed in August that it will build a new 220,000 sq ft ‘Discovery Research Centre’ (DRC) opposite King’s Cross station. 

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If planning permission is granted by Camden council, the $1.32bn complex is expected to be completed in 2025 and house 800 MSD employees – including an additional 120 positions.

The new recruits will join existing MSD teams in London to form a team of some 160 scientists, while commercial and clinical teams will join from MSD’s current business hub in Hertfordshire.

The announcement confirms MSD’s long-running plans for a new R&D hub in London and was driven by a recognition of the UK as a “world leader in scientific development”. The pharma group originally announced its intentions back in December 2017 – a move extolled by the UK government as a win for its post-Brexit life sciences sector.

Deciding factors

Fiona Marshall, who was recruited to help set up the DRC as the head of neuroscience and discovery research for MSD in the UK, told fDi that the decision for a long-term commitment to London was made prior to the Brexit referendum. 

Ms Marshall notes that recruiting the best talent is the “primary driver” when deciding where to open a new scientific research centre, and London’s pool of diverse talent and draw to scientists from other countries is an attractive prospect. MSD has also opened US research hubs in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California – cities that offer similar talent benefits.

“Getting a really diverse workforce in science is so important, because the difficult problems we are trying to address in tackling these diseases need as many different perspectives of how you can solve these problems as possible,” she clarifies. 

Ms Marshall says that King’s Cross also affords MSD a “unique” set of travel connections to the rest of the UK and across Europe, while enabling it to continue and further its collaboration with local universities, hospitals and start-ups.

With the surrounding ecosystem fundamental to the decision to set up, MSD plans to increase their existing collaboration with start-ups in London and the rest of the UK. Ms Marshall says that almost half of its drug pipeline comes from partnerships, with the remainder from in-house research. 

King’s Cross has emerged as London’s ‘knowledge quarter’, boasting big name companies and research centres. Around the corner from MSD’s new DRC is the Francis Crick biomedical research institute and Google’s 11-storey ‘Groundscraper’ headquarters — which is still under construction — while Facebook has 611,000 square feet of office space in the area.

Covid concentration

As Covid-19 dominates the headlines – with Merck participating in the vaccine race – Ms Marshall says the pandemic has shown the importance of investment to develop new medicines.

With the UK approaching the end of its transition from the EU in the middle of a global pandemic, pan-European scientific collaboration has never been more important. 

Ms Marshall stresses that while the focus is on Covid, “we should remember that there are a lot of other serious diseases,” adding that the MSD’s London team continue to work on diseases of ageing such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

This article first appeared in the October - November print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here