Why are life sciences important to Scotland?

Julia Brown, director of life and chemical sciences at Scottish Enterprise, explains about the industry's roots and future across the country.

Scotland has a rich history in life sciences. From Sir Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin and Sir Ronald Ross linking mosquitos to malaria, through to Sir James Black developing beta-blockers and Ian Donald utilising ultrasound, our nation has led the world in medicine and biology.

That proud heritage continues today, with companies like Optos producing machines to scan the human eye for diseases, while Touch Bionics restores movement to people who have lost their fingers or hands. Inventions such as these are changing the lives of thousands of patients, both in our own land and overseas.

So what are life sciences and why are they important to Scotland? Life sciences take the study of biology and apply it to our everyday lives, whether that’s through developing drugs and inventing medical devices, or improving the health of the animals, fish and plants that sustain us.

Scotland’s life sciences community is fascinating because it brings together doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals working in the National Health Service (NHS) with academics and researchers in our universities and entrepreneurs in the private sector. Few fields can bring together these three distinct areas, but harnessing the skills and talents from these different backgrounds is one of the real strengths of our industry.

For example, NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde has worked with the University of Glasgow and companies like Aridhia and Thermo Fisher Scientific to open the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre, which will look at a patient’s genes and help develop more effective medicines.

Having a single healthcare system covering the whole country brings with it lots of advantages, such as the medical records system. This not only lets drug developers find patients to take part in trials for the latest medicines, but also allows software companies to probe the endless masses of information to spot healthcare trends and identify future needs, while all the time still protecting patient confidentiality. This means that very sick patients who haven’t responded to current treatments can try the very latest medicines and techniques.

Once patients’ needs have been identified, Scottish companies are involved throughout the drug development process. From testing which chemical compounds could be turned into medicines through to assessing them on hospital wards, entrepreneurs are taking part in every step of the journey.

In Aberdeen, NovaBiotics is developing treatments for a range of ailments from cystic fibrosis to fungal nail infections, while in the Borders medicines created by Galashiels-based ProStrakan help to treat the nausea associated with chemotherapy and the breakthrough pain sometimes experienced by cancer patients. Meanwhile, firms like Charles River in East Lothian and Onorach Clinical in Dundee are fulfilling research contracts to test products from clients around the world, highlighting Scotland’s attractiveness as a place to come and try new ideas and technology.

Life sciences isn’t just about keeping people healthy or making them feel well again – it is also a way of growing our economy. The life sciences sector already employs more than 30,000 people in over 600 organisations, which together turn over £3.2 billion each year. We’ve got ambitious targets to double those revenues to £6.2bn by 2020.

That’s a big number, but we’re already well on the way, with the life sciences sector continuing to thrive during the recession. Scotland is the number one destination in the UK for overseas investment outside London and our early-stage companies have received double the number of funding deals than the UK average since 2012.

It isn’t just start-up funding we’re talking about here. In 2014, NuCana BioMed – which is developing anti-cancer medicines – secured £33.85 million from investors, a record for Scotland and the 14th largest deal of its kind globally.

Having big companies operating in Scotland is nothing new. Established players like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have long-standing presences in Irvine and Montrose, while Ethicon, which is part of American group Johnston & Johnston, has a history in Scotland stretching back to 1947.

The way drugs companies operate is changing, with businesses like GSK forming partnerships with organisations like the University of Edinburgh to study liver disease and pancreatitis. Such collaborations highlight the attractiveness of our education system, with our 19 higher education institutions securing £969m in research investment during 2012-13 alone – 57 per cent of which went into life sciences.

It isn’t just our universities that are involved in the sector though; Scotland’s 37 further education colleges also lay the foundations for skilled technicians and researchers to enter the industry. You don’t need to have a master’s degree or a PhD to work in life sciences – there are highly-skilled and well-paid jobs in a range of roles.

And you don’t have to wear a white coat either. Craneware writes software for American hospitals and not only hires computer programmers and developers for its head office in Edinburgh but also customer services staff so that it can respond to clients’ inquiries round the clock. Medical device developers like Optos and Touch Bionics are just as likely to be interested in engineers and technicians as they are in the scientists who have developed the underlying principles.

And jobs aren’t just available in technical disciplines like biology or engineering either. Companies working in the life sciences sector need managers, administrators, finance controllers and talented marketing and sales staff at all levels if they are to succeed on the domestic and global stage, creating opportunities for school leavers and college students as well as university graduates.

It all goes to show that anyone can work in life sciences and be part of this exciting community. Employment levels remained constant in the sector during the recession, which has given companies stability and which means that now is a great time for young people to consider a career in the industry.

The rich history and heritage that gave us such greats as Fleming and Ross, Black and Donald, is alive and well in the current generation of scientists and entrepreneurs who are demonstrating each and every day why life sciences continue to matter to Scotland.