Brushing off Brexit, Alnylam commits to opening EU hub in U.K., hiring 100 people

EC building, Brussels

Alnylam ($ALNY) has delivered a post-Brexit boost to the British biopharma sector by committing to housing its European clinical trials and operations headquarters in Maidenhead. The decision flies in the face of concerns about Britain’s attractiveness to overseas drugmakers in the wake of the referendum, although there are reasons to think Alnylam may be the exception rather than the rule.

Talking to the Financial Times, Alnylam CMO Akshay Vaishnaw admitted the result of the referendum on European Union membership was a “heart-stopping” moment. But, after pausing to take stock of the situation, Alnylam decided to push ahead with plans to swap its serviced offices in Uxbridge for a lease on 20,000 square feet of space at Braywick Gate in Maidenhead. In doing so, Alnylam has given itself room for 100 more staff and made the U.K. the beachhead of its European expansion.

The decision to set up shop in Maidenhead, which is in the constituency of Prime Minister Theresa May, couldn’t be much better for the government’s efforts to instill confidence post-Brexit if it was taken by government ministers themselves. And Alnylam has further helped out by talking up the importance of the U.K., regardless of whether it loses the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the years to come.

“Whatever happens, the U.K. will remain a leader in the life sciences and clinical research--and in medicines regulation. The fact that the EMA headquarters are in Canary Wharf was obviously an attraction for us, but even if it has to move from London the MHRA is a wonderful regulatory body,” Vaishnaw said.

Rather than relocating its European clinical trials and operations headquarters in the event EMA leaves London, Alnylam will just “set up a small extra office in whatever European city” it moves to, Vaishnaw said. The comment both dampens concerns, which were inflamed by the Japanese government, that EMA will lead an exodus of foreign drug developers from London to mainland Europe, and simultaneously hints that newcomers to the EU may not follow the path set by Alnylam.

Alnylam, by its own admission, chose Maidenhead as its EU base well before the result of the Brexit referendum. The RNAi specialist already had staff in nearby Uxbridge and links to the British scientific sector through its clinical trials. News of its signing of a 10-year lease on the space leaked out weeks after the referendum. The Maidenhead headquarters was referred to in job listings posted the month before the vote. And early recruits to the U.K. team were already in place by the referendum.

Each of these facts shows Alnylam was entwined with the U.K. long before the vote. While it would have been possible to pull a U-turn and establish an office on the mainland following the referendum, this would have set back Alnylam at a time when it is pushing full throttle to bring its first products to market. Alnylam has also opted against going all in on the U.K.. A site in Zug, Switzerland will be Alnylam's EU headquarters, a spokesperson for the company told FierceBiotech. Alnylam plans to hire 40 people in the low-tax location of Zug in the coming years as it builds up its European commercial leadership team.

The big question post-Brexit is whether foreign biotechs continue to become entwined with the U.K. even if it cannot act as a gateway to the EU market and provide ready access to the best talent from across the continent. If that happens, it will add weight to the argument that the scientific clout and other characteristics of the U.K. are strong enough for it to remain relevant outside of the EU.