The government is considering pumping millions of pounds into universities and regional associations playing a crucial role in supporting the rapidly growing biotechnology industry.
According to Whitehall sources, the funds could be made available to help key institutions and associations better to coordinate the growth of high technology "clusters". The support would be directed at meeting the essential general support services and market information needs of biotechnology firms, including university spin-offs.
The initiative is being considered by the Treasury following a report on biotechnology clustering in the United Kingdom by science minister Lord Sainsbury. The study, which involved a team led by Lord Sainsbury visiting a number of universities which work closely with industry, recommended the government should find ways to provide extra financial support for regional biotechnology associations and universities to step up their support for the sector. It also said that new associations should be established in areas with emerging clusters.
Universities visited by the team included Manchester, Surrey, Oxford, Cambridge, Dundee and the University of Wales, Cardiff.
There are many regional biotechnology associations working closely with local universities. Lord Sainsbury's report said that many of these associations had been set up with the help of pump-priming from the Department of Trade and Industry. It added: "It is our view that it would be premature for them to become fully self-funding in the short term and that future public support is justified."
Oxford University has been working closely with the Oxford Trust, a charitable body which promotes science and technology, to promote biotechnology clustering. Trust chief executive Paul Bradstock said that in the past five to ten years 50 new biotechnology companies have sprouted around the Oxford region, including university spin-offs.
The trust has established an incubator for new firms and BioLink, an association aimed at promoting the health and growth of biotechnology companies.
Mr Bradstock said: "I think the local clustering of companies is extremely important and has significant impact on their work with universities. Oxford Brookes University, for instance, has just established a new biotechnology degree in direct response to and in collaboration with the industry."