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Biotech setback for UK

A SPATE of executive sackings, product setbacks and share slumps at UK biotechnology firms have encouraged German entrepreneurs to challenge British dominance of the sector, writes Dane Hamilton.

With the help of state and private enterprise, German biotech firms burgeoned by 70 per cent in the past year. Sebastian Meier-Ewart, founder of Genome Pharmaceutical in Munich, typifies the new wave of German entrants. "I don't know if German companies will supersede Britain, but I think they will catch up fairly quickly," he predicted.

For over a decade Britain has led Europe in new bioscience companies, which develop high-tech drugs or medical devices.The UK industry now has 248 companies: about three dozen are quoted. There is only one public German company - Qiagen - but at least 10 others may list soon, and analysts believe the shares will find a ready market.

The German growth comes as the UK sector suffers growing pains, with shares slumping 40 per cent in a year. Last month, three UK executives were sacked: Andrew Millar, British Biotech director of clinical research; David Horrobin, chief executive of Scotia Holdings and Arthur Holden, chief of Celsis International.

Investors fear a "brain drain" of British scientists. One solution may be British public-private partnerships of the kind that has propelled the growth of the German sector.