AstraZeneca, after years of delays and spiraling costs, opens Cambridge R&D site. Will the bet pay off?

AstraZeneca's Discovery Centre in Cambridge, U.K. (AstraZeneca)

Five years late and 200% over budget, AstraZeneca has finally formally unveiled the Cambridge, U.K., site that is at the heart of its R&D strategy.  

AstraZeneca revealed plans to move from Alderley Park to Cambridge in 2013. At that time, the plan was to spend 330 million pounds ($440 million) on the new facility and relocate 2,000 staff to it by 2016. In reality, AstraZeneca spent around 1 billion pounds on the facility and took until 2021 to get the Cambridge site ready.

Waves of delays and overspend rolled in as the project progressed, with the forecast budget climbing to 500 million pounds, 750 million pounds and finally 1 billion pounds across a series of annual updates. AstraZeneca blamed the spiraling cost on the complexity of the build, inflation—including the impact of Brexit on the pound—and increased investment in new technologies and equipment such as genomics tools. 

The question now is whether the end result will justify the investment and upheaval. Pascal Soriot has high hopes for the facility, which is one of three centers that now form the backbone of R&D at AstraZeneca.

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“Our new Discovery Centre in Cambridge raises the bar for sustainable R&D and global collaboration across our industry. It will allow us to break new boundaries in the understanding of disease biology, bring life-changing medicines to patients and power the next stage of our company’s growth,” the AstraZeneca CEO said in a statement.

Soriot’s comments touch on two key features of the facility. AstraZeneca made the 125-mile move from the semirural Alderley Park to U.K. life science hot spot Cambridge to get closer to the people who are doing cutting-edge research outside of its walls. In disclosing the opening of the new facility, AstraZeneca talked up the proximity of the 19,000-square-meter laboratories to leading hospitals, the University of Cambridge, other research institutions and a number of biotech companies. 

AstraZeneca, like many of its peers, is betting that moving from the sort of out-of-town campus that was once in fashion in pharma to the heart of the life science research scene will benefit its pipeline. The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker has sought to maximize the impact of the location by having open spaces for collaboration at the new facility. 

The other key feature addressed by Soriot is the sustainability of the building. AstraZeneca said “the disc-like structure is a feat of environmental engineering equipped with 174 boreholes to provide natural geothermal energy; four ‘hybrid cooling towers’ and a ground source heat pump that will save enough energy to power 2,500 homes.”