By Ben Hirschler and Tom Bill
LONDON (Reuters) - AstraZeneca is closing in on a site for its new $500 million home in Cambridge, with a biomedical park just south of the English city the most likely site, property industry sources said.
Moving research and global headquarters to Cambridge, with minimal disruption, is a key test for new Chief Executive Pascal Soriot as he tries to change the drugmaker's culture and puts ground-breaking science at the center of its activities.
The move to the university city, involving nearly 2,000 jobs, is the centerpiece of a $2.3 billion restructuring plan unveiled by Soriot in March, which also includes a 10 percent cut in overall staff numbers by 2016.
An AstraZeneca spokeswoman said on Monday that the drugmaker was still considering its options, adding an update on the final location was likely in the next couple of months.
Two property industry insiders familiar with the deal said the Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC) was the frontrunner. The other option is Granta Park, another research park outside Cambridge where AstraZeneca's MedImmune unit is already located.
Situated two miles from central Cambridge, the CBC is an extension of a site occupied by the world-famous Addenbrooke's Hospital that has been developed in conjunction with the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council.
With outline planning consent for 70 acres to accommodate up to 2.3 million square feet of new buildings, there is plenty of room for the purpose-built global research center and corporate headquarters that AstraZeneca plans to establish by 2016 at cost of around 330 million pounds ($500 million).
CBC Project Director Jeanette Walker said the park was in advanced talks with several major companies.
"We are hoping to close a number of discussions this summer that would see building start early next year for a number of potential occupiers," she told Reuters, while declining to identify specific companies.
The new AstraZeneca facility could eventually reach 750,000 square feet, although not all that would be delivered in 2016, according to one property industry source.
A smooth transition to the new site is crucial for AstraZeneca, which is in a race to develop new drugs and strike external deals to replenish its medicine chest as old blockbusters lose patent protection, sapping sales.
Menelas Pangalos, the group's head of innovative medicines, said the drugmaker would offer enticing packages to make sure key scientific staff relocated to Cambridge.
"We are going to have very aggressive retention and relocation plans. We have time to plan the move and make it as flexible and as attractive as possible for people," he said.
"Over the next month or two we should be able to talk about that in a lot more detail."
Many AstraZeneca scientists were shocked by the decision two months ago to shutter the company's Alderley Park facility in northwest England, for many years a hub of the group's research.
The closure, while offset by the Cambridge investment, was also a blow to the British government. Alderley Park lies within the Cheshire parliamentary constituency of finance minister George Osborne.
AstraZeneca aims to tap into an environment of world-class academic and clinical life sciences research in its new home in Cambridge. In addition to ready access to hospital clinicians, its researchers will also be rubbing shoulders with top academics.
Cambridge's Laboratory of Molecular Biology - home to 13 Nobel Prize winners over the years - has also moved to a new CBC facility that will be formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday.
"We've lost some of our scientific confidence," Soriot complained earlier this year, when setting out his major overhaul for AstraZeneca.
Whether the big move will help the drugmaker regain its swagger in drug development remains to be seen. The relocation will only be completed in 2016 and the fruits of future research collaboration with its new neighbors are even further off.
(Editing by Mark Potter)