AstraZeneca sells off U.K. R&D shop as it packs up for Cambridge

AstraZeneca's Alderley Park R&D site--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca ($AZN) is not long for northern England, locking down a buyer for its sprawling Alderley Park R&D campus as it prepares for a Cambridge, U.K., relocation.

Without getting into financial details, AstraZeneca said the public-private Manchester Science Parks will take the 400-acre site off its hands, and the new owner has promised to maintain its status as a biomedical research campus, providing a small balm for a region about to lose 1,600 jobs. AstraZeneca said it'll take a $275 million impairment charge on the sale, part of the $2.5 billion it expects to spend on restructuring as it realigns its R&D arm and shifts its global headquarters.

That clears AstraZeneca to uproot its research operation on schedule, planning to settle into a $500 million complex in Cambridge by 2016. The move is part of the slow-footed drugmaker's plot to slim down and jump-start innovation, a move that involves thousands of layoffs around the globe, new partnerships with biotech and academia, and exits from less-lucrative fields like neglected diseases.

AstraZeneca's future home in Cambridge, U.K.--Courtesy of AstraZeneca

The company is already sending out scout teams of scientists to plant the seeds of collaboration in Cambridge, itching to make its way into a global research hub that includes the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Addenbrooke's Hospital and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. The latter just brought in about 60 AstraZeneca investigators last month, playing host as both institutions get cracking on some preclinical and clinical candidates.

AstraZeneca's move follows a fast-spreading trend in Big Pharma in which once-solipsistic drugmakers open their ears and wallets to external researchers, decamping to biotech hubs to rub shoulders with innovators from myriad organizations. There is, of course, no guarantee that a change in scenery will reverse the company's years-long cold streak, but such an embrace of external R&D has thus far been fruitful for the likes of Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Novartis ($NVS) and Sanofi ($SNY), and AstraZeneca, with its thin late-stage pipeline, has plenty of incentive to take a new tack.

After it ships out in 2016, AstraZeneca plans to retain about 700 non-R&D employees in Alderley Park, renting out space in what Manchester Science Parks hopes will have become a bustling center of biotech activity.

- read the announcement

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