Breathing fresh life into a sleeping giant

Breathing fresh life into a sleeping giant

Combining science and business has led Diane Harbison to become managing director of BioCity Scotland, the Lanarkshire life sciences incubation centre that’s expanding into healthcare, writes BQ editor Peter Ranscombe.

Few sights as you drive along the M8 motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh draw as many quizzical looks as the odd-shaped building that sits on the north side of the road at Newhouse, with the name ‘BioCity Scotland’ emblazoned on its side.

“It’s supposed to look like a Dutch hat,” explains Diane Harbison, managing director of the life sciences incubation centre that occupies the stylish building and its bedfellows on the 20-acre site. The Dutch influence in the curve of the bulbous roof is a throwback to Netherlands-based Organon, which owned the factory in the 1960s and produced some of the UK’s first contraceptive pills on the premises.

Seeing weird and wonderful sights while traveling is nothing new to Harbison. Although she was born in Glasgow, her parents moved to Africa when she was six months old while her father was working as a telecommunications engineer. Returning to the UK with her family when she was eleven, Harbison completed her schooling at Falkirk before studying the emerging subject of molecular biology at the University of Glasgow.

“I’ve always been interested in science for as long as I can remember,” explains Harbison. Following her undergraduate degree, Harbison stayed in Glasgow to complete her doctorate in molecular biology, which involved studying the genes of fruit flies.

The research led her on to a job at the University of Edinburgh, looking at the genes in fruit flies that play a role in development and in the control of diabetes in humans. After heading south to Cambridge and working on the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) database at the European Bioinformatics Centre, Harbison was recruited to drug developer Pfizer’s bioinformatics team, where she spent four years and rose to become head of e-biology, the field that brings together biology and computer science.

Life Sciences

Harbison took the step from science into enterprise in 2004 when she moved across to Pfizer’s business development unit. “I’d worked closely with the business development team and thought it looked like a really exciting job and so when a vacancy opened up I applied for it,” she remembers. “Business development involved researching opportunities, negotiating contracts and then managing alliances, such as partnerships with universities. I was lucky to work on some fantastic projects – like the stem cell work involving Professor Pete Coffey at University College London into age-related macular degeneration, which is one of the biggest causes of blindness.”

Having worked for Pfizer at Sandwich in Kent, Harbison decided it was time to head home to Scotland and, when she saw the role of head of business development at Edinburgh BioQuarter being advertised, she jumped at the chance to apply. She got the job and started in November 2010.

The BioQuarter is a joint venture between NHS Lothian, Scottish Enterprise and the University of Edinburgh and is arguably best known for the science park of the same name, which sits next to the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh at Little France and includes ‘Nine’, the futuristic-looking incubation centre for spin-out companies and firms that want to form links with academics and clinicians.

Harbison and her team were involved in a lesser-known part of the project that had been set up to commercialise the intellectual property (IP) being developed by NHS Lothian and the university’s medical school, which had also moved out to Little France when the hospital left its Victorian home on Lauriston Place in 2003.

Her greatest hits at the BioQuarter included signing two partnerships with drug development giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which involved scientists from the company working with academics at the university on liver disease and pancreatitis. The combination of her background in cutting-edge scientific research and her experience in business development at Pfizer gave Harbison the credibility needed to broker such deals between big pharmaceutical companies and universities.

Yet, after enjoying success at the Edinburgh BioQuarter, what made Harbison head down to the other end of the M8 to run BioCity Scotland? “When I came to visit, I appreciated that the site presented an opportunity to do something completely different,” she explains. “It felt like a very exciting and challenging opportunity.”

While the Edinburgh BioQuarter is a distinctly public-sector project, BioCity Scotland is a completely different beast. The Newhouse factory opened in 1948 and, after expansion under Dutch firm Organon, eventually passed into the hands of MSD, part of US drug developer Merck. MSD closed the Lanarkshire facility in 2010 with the loss of 250 jobs following its £30 billion takeover of Schering-Plough.

But in January 2013 Roslin BioCentre, which already ran a science park on the edge of Edinburgh, teamed up with BioCity Nottingham to open BioCity Scotland on the Lanarkshire site. Harbison took over as managing director at BioCity Scotland in August 2014 from Fraser Black, the site’s first boss. Under his stewardship, the University of Dundee and BioCity had won a share of the European Union’s £169m European Lead Factory project, which brought around 500,000 chemical compounds to be stored on the site and analysed to see if they could be turned into new medicines.

Since taking over, Harbison has worked to make the site more attractive to companies. Some of her innovations have been simple steps, such as opening a small café. Other changes have been more dramatic, such as campaigning for BioCity to be awarded enterprise area (EA) status. Edinburgh BioQuarter had become an EA after finance secretary John Swinney announced the business rates tax break back in 2012, sparking anger from private sector property developers, which said such incentives gave the public sector-backed site an unfair competitive advantage.

Lobbying to level the playing field bore fruit at the start of September this year, when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that BioCity Scotland would also be granted EA status. “Becoming an EA in 2016 will remove one of the biggest barriers to bringing more companies to the site,” Harbison explains. “In the past, if one of our companies expanded out of a small laboratory space into a bigger space then we would be left paying business rates on that smaller space until we could find a new occupant. That wasn’t the case for the BioQuarter, for example.”

In the meantime, companies have continued to setup home in BioCity. The latest was Alfacyte, a pharmaceuticals company that moved to Newhouse from its base in Glasgow after securing a £350,000 funding package from St Andrews-based business angel syndicate Eos and the Scottish Investment Bank to develop its peanut allergy vaccine.

Diane Harbison QuoteAnother company to have recently moved into the facility was Scientific Laboratory Supplies (SLS), which marked its arrival at BioCity by holding the inaugural Scottish Laboratory Show trade fair at the end of October. Having such companies on hand to supply scientific equipment, chemicals and consumables has been a big part of Harbison’s strategy to make Newhouse more attractive to tenants.

“On day one, I was taken on a tour of the site and saw every nook and cranny,” says Harbison. “I think that was a real eye-opener for me because, like most people, I didn’t appreciate the size and the scale of the site. Most people are familiar with the pharmacology building that faces onto the M8, but what they don’t appreciate is that there are 20 acres of land behind that building and 130,000 square feet of laboratories and offices.”

There are now 18 companies based at BioCity, which together employ about 120 people, with the total expected to rise, by the close of the financial year, to 22 firms and up to 150 staff. By the end of March, Harbison expects Newhouse will reach a milestone when occupancy rates pass 50% for the first time.

The next step in the expansion is MediCity Scotland, the healthcare incubation centre that has opened in one of the other buildings on the site. While the entire BioCity complex is focused on life sciences – from drug discovery through to ingredient manufacturing – the MediCity incubator will focus specifically on businesses that involve medical technology, whether through devices, imaging or digital health.

“Scotland has been very strong on med tech, with companies like Optos and Touch Bionics,” says Harbison. “With our connection with Nottingham – which has its own MediCity on the Boots site – we have a focus on health and wellness. So MediCity has been created to work with the med tech community – which is often a hidden community compared with other life science companies, buried in the basement of a hospital – to create a place where people can come together and get the type of peer-to-peer mentoring and access to business support such as finance that they can’t get elsewhere.”

Chancellor George Osborne unveiled £1m of funding for MediCity Scotland during the Commonwealth Games Business Conference in July 2014 as part of an £18m life sciences package in the Glasgow & Clyde Valley City Deal. The facility was opened in November 2015 and is now up and running.

Another achievement of which Harbison is proud is the facility’s innovation hub. “It’s the first of its kind in Scotland and has formed a unique partnership between BioCity Scotland, Scottish universities, NHS Scotland, innovation centres, bio-pharmaceutical and big data companies,” she says. “This collaborative approach is helping to foster the success of more start-up and spin-out companies by giving them exceptional opportunities to learn from and work together with major healthcare practitioners, entrepreneurs and scientists.”

Though her working life is now centred on Lanarkshire, Harbison still lives in Edinburgh. “My house is in the perfect location for commuting to the BioQuarter but sadly not BioCity,” she jokes. “But really the commute isn’t that bad on the M8. I used to commute between Canterbury and Cambridge, so this doesn’t feel that long. It gives me time to prepare myself for the working day and then to switch off again on the way home.”

When it comes to de-stressing and relaxing, yoga plays a big role in Harbison’s routine, as does swimming. Reading is another way that she unwinds, but science obviously still plays a role, as she lists Patricia Cornwell’s novels about forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta as among her favourites.

The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree either when it comes to science and medicine. Harbison’s son, Sean, is in the final stages of his medical degree at Imperial College London and recently completed a three-week placement with a general practitioners’ clinic at Stockbridge in Edinburgh. “I’m trying to encourage him to move up here when he finishes,” Harbison laughs.

With so many enterprising medics and scientists making their way to BioCity Scotland, he’s unlikely to be alone if he decides to make a move north of the Border.