When Big Pharma starts playing video games

"Labster" is an e-learning video game with potential.

Labster, a virtual laboratory, which contains millions of pounds worth of advanced equipment, also allows its users to perform experiments – video game style – ranging from sequencing DNA from ancient caveman bones to identifying murderers through blood samples. 

The idea is to use popular video game-esque technology to reignite students’ interest in biotechnology, a subject that many are dropping out of early in their university degrees. Indeed, according to Labster’s co-founder and CEO, Harvard graduate and biotech engineering expert Mads Bonde, technology like Labster, which uses real-world scenarios or ‘cases’ such as crime scenes and hospital bedsides, could have a big impact on science students’ drop-out rate.

"Many students drop out of their degrees at the beginning, where they have a lot of basic learning that is often far removed from the potential exciting future they are heading to," he said. "What we can do with Labster, though, is tie the basic knowledge and basic learning – the principles they really need to understand – into why it is extremely interesting and why it has important applications."

Bonde even goes so far as to say he believes that e-learning video games like Labster – because they are more motivating, inspiring and fun for students than traditional teaching - could revolutionise the future of science education, replacing current techniques, which are not only ineffective, but also waste valuable resources.

The new technology can also be used in the Big Pharma corporate world as a training tool for employees who need to learn how to use new machines or perform unfamiliar procedures. And, in the future, the Labster team hopes to create a "lab builder", which will allow students and teachers to design their own labs and cases, depending on what they want to learn.

Rather than breeding a generation of unhealthy, disease-prone layabouts, perhaps new gaming technology could do just the opposite. In fact, by inspiring the next generation of potential biotech experts to actually take the leap into careers ranging from crime scene investigation to clinical medicine, one could even go so far as to suggest that video gamers could soon be saving lives.

Labster aims to reignite students’ interest in biotechnology Photograph: Getty Images

Elly Earls is a freelancer for NRi Digital

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.