Big ideas from a small country

Big ideas from a small country

Scotland’s life sciences sector is big enough to offer the prospects for commercialisation yet small enough to create the opportunities for collaboration, as Scottish Enterprise director Julia Brown explains.

Twenty years ago, Scottish scientists changed the world. On 5 July, 1996, on a farm in Midlothian, just south of Edinburgh, an ordinary ewe gave birth to what appeared to be a very ordinary lamb. But this was no ordinary offspring; this was Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from a cell taken from an adult animal. When her birth was announced the following spring, the world’s media descended on the Roslin Institute, where Dolly had been created in partnership with life sciences company PPL Therapeutics.

Dolly’s birth sparked a renewed worldwide interest in cloning and put the Roslin Institute on the global map. It also shone a spotlight on the work of PPL and opened plenty of doors for its staff. “The network of people who were associated with PPL and Dolly is very strong still across Scotland – we crop up in lots of different places,” laughs Julia Brown, senior director of life and chemical sciences at economic development agency Scottish Enterprise.

“The people who worked on Dolly the Sheep have gone on to work in all sorts of roles throughout Scotland, either setting up their own businesses or working in other ways to strengthen the sector.

“It’s a close-knit community – communications and collaborations are strong in Scotland. If one of us can’t help then we’ll know someone else who can. You can build a whole career here because of the diversity of the sector.”

Brown joined PPL in 1996 as head of clinical development, a role she retained until 2000 when she left to co-found Pleiad, a specialist consultancy firm that initially worked with large pharmaceutical companies and small biotechnology firms before specialising in medical devices, helping businesses with their regulatory and clinical work.

After a career in industry, Brown jumped the fence in 2008 and joined the Life Sciences Intermediary Technology Institute (ITI), which – alongside similar bodies covering digital media and energy – had been setup by the-then Scottish Executive in 2003 to commission research projects within universities that could then be commercialised in the private sector. The ITIs were rolled into Scottish Enterprise in 2008, with Brown taking up her current post in 2013.

“I am really interested in that interface between academia and industry,” she explains. “Scotland’s universities have such a strong reputation in scientific research and so I always enjoy the challenge of helping to translate those discoveries from the researcher’s bench in a laboratory to the patient’s bedside in a hospital.

“Those links between businesses and universities are one of the strongest facets of the life sciences industry in Scotland. Our cluster of life science companies is growing all the time, which means that there are lots and lots of opportunities for people to come and work in the industry.”

DollyThe fact that Scotland is a relatively-small country means that the cluster of life sciences companies is quite compact, allowing businesspeople and academics to easily travel to meetings. People see each other on a regular basis and are able to keep up-to-date about
the projects on which their colleagues and peers are working.

Scotland’s world-class universities don’t just provide some of the scientific research that fuels the life sciences industry; they also train many of the members of staff who go on to work in those companies. “Some students graduate and then stay in Scotland, while others have such fond memories of the country that they come back to work here later in their careers,” explains Brown.

“Our strong research base also offers an international flavour to our life sciences cluster. People from overseas are attracted to come and study or carry out research in Scotland and will often stay and join our company base. There’s a blend of different cultures and nationalities – that was demonstrated when Dolly was created. That was a multinational team, combining many different backgrounds.”

Scottish Enterprise has worked with fellow public agency Skills Development Scotland and with partners in industry to continue expanding the Modern Apprenticeships scheme, with graduate-level apprenticeships at master’s degree level and foundation apprenticeships for senior school pupils. The Women Returners project helps mothers to re-enter the science, technology and engineering industries after starting their families, while Edinburgh Napier University has developed a laboratory skills course for graduates and an increasing number of students are being offered internships.

As one of the four constituent nations that make up the UK, Scotland has always had its own education, legal and religious systems. Those differences have been accentuated in the National Health Service (NHS) since devolution of power from the UK Parliament at Westminster to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in 1999.

While the NHS in England has become more fragmented and has continued to develop competition through its internal market, the NHS in Scotland is small enough to continue to function as one cohesive unit. Scotland’s size means that the NHS can operate as a single unified healthcare system – each patient has a unique identification number that can be used to track them throughout the system, from appointments with general practitioners at the local health clinic all the way through to consultations with specialist doctors in hospitals.

Brown also points to Scotland’s stable population; with fewer people coming and going, it’s easier to track people who have developed diseases and who could be suitable candidates for clinical trials or research projects. Comprehensive disease registries are also kept, giving clinicians and researchers access to data on ailments such as diabetes and heart disease.

“The NHS’s attitude to innovation has also changed in recent years,” adds Brown. “Particularly in the past two years, there has been a willingness to look at how to do things differently.

“Each health board now has an innovation champion. These people have helped to put innovation on the agenda at a senior level and to help the NHS think about its economic impact – that’s quite distinctive. When people visit us from outside Scotland, they’re quite surprised about the level of engagement between industry and the NHS.

“Businesses now feel that there’s an open door and that they can have a discussion with the NHS, rather than an attitude of ‘Go away, we’re too busy’, which perhaps was the attitude in the past. Scotland is a great place for people who want to get together and try something different.”

Brown highlights the work undertaken by NHS Research Scotland (NRS), an organisation that offers a joined-up approach across the nation and a single point-of-contact for companies looking to conduct clinical trials. NRS has cut the time it takes to sign a contract by 60 per cent and now helps organisations to secure a decision on R&D permission within 30 calendar days and to recruit their first patients within another 30 days of gaining NHS permission.

The Chief Scientist Office within the Scottish Government has invested more than £40.4 million in research infrastructure, while a further £10m has been invested in research facilities for clinical trials and £12m has been set aside to fund up to 15 clinicians over the next ten years to expand the amount of health research carried out in Scotland.

“The NRS is very industry-friendly – it offers a single point-of-contact, it has a set contract and it offers set timelines that people will work towards,” Brown adds. “That’s why Scotland does well when it comes to attracting clinical research studies.

“Scotland has a relatively-small population of five million people and so we tend not to do many of the large phase-III trials, but instead concentrate on winning a lot of the more specialist work. In April, three clinical research champions were appointed to provide national leadership in the development of clinical research covering three specialist areas – diabetes, stroke and children’s medicine.”

Those close links between academia, the health service and industry also bring about economic development benefits. The Edinburgh BioQuarter, the science park built next to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, has created ten businesses in the past five years, with tenants such as Johnson & Johnson and Roche taking the site’s Building Nine incubator centre to full capacity.

The enthusiasm for the life sciences industry demonstrated by Brown and her team at Scottish Enterprise is infectious. One of the factors that stokes their passion for the industry is the sheer variety of sectors that call Scotland home – from companies working in the human health arena all the way through to businesses involved in agri-tech, aquaculture and industrial biotechnology.

Julia Brown 02

Speaking to members of the team, it’s also clear how excited they get about the depth as well as the breadth of the sector. Companies in Scotland aren’t just carrying out R&D; businesses are manufacturing products that are sold around the world, like Fife-based eye scanner maker Optos, which lists the United States as its largest market, and pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline, which has sites at Irvine and Montrose and is this year [2016] investing a further £110m to bring further production to Montrose.

Another ingredient in the recipe for developing successful life science companies in Scotland has been the finance available through the Scottish Investment Bank (SIB), the investment arm of Scottish Enterprise and its partner, Highlands & Islands Enterprise. During the 2014-15 financial year, £10.6m or 16 per cent of the £66.5m invested by the SIB was in life science companies.

Out of the 275 companies in the bank’s portfolio, 28 per cent are in the life and chemical sciences, the second-largest group behind only technology and advanced engineering. Acquisitions of life science companies in which the SIB holds a stake – such as device maker Aircraft Medical to Medtronic and laser developer Cascade Technologies to Emerson – has helped to recycle money back into the Scottish investment ecosystem.

As well as the Scottish Seed Fund and the Scottish Venture Fund, the SIB also runs the innovative Scottish Co-investment Fund, which allows it to invest alongside business angels and other pre-approved partners. The Scottish technique has been studied as far afield as Canada and New Zealand.

Life science companies have access to wider economic help, such as Regional Selective Assistant (RSA) grants for creating or protecting jobs in Scotland and mezzanine debt through the Scottish Loan Fund, which is administered by Glasgow-based Maven Capital Partners. But life science firms can also tap into more-specialist help, such as that available from Epidarex Capital, an Edinburgh-based venture capital fund in which Scottish Enterprise is a cornerstone investor, alongside American pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly, the Strathclyde Pension Fund and several universities.

“The support available through the SIB makes Scottish Enterprise one of the biggest life science investors in the UK, in terms of the number of deals that we’ve done,” adds Brown. “More broadly, Scotland’s life sciences industry attracted more than £40m of investment during 2015, which demonstrates the confidence that investors have shown in our companies.”

One of the priorities for both the UK Government at Westminster and the Scottish Government at Holyrood has been to increase the productivity of British and Scottish companies. Life science companies have always invested a lot of money in research and development (R&D) in comparison with other sectors,” Brown explains.

“It’s not just financial support that’s available either – the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS) helps businesses to improve their production processes and save money along the way. Scottish Enterprise also works hard to introduce companies to potential collaborators in academia to help them with their R&D, using services such as Interface, which acts as a matchmaker for businesses that want to work with universities to improve their products or services.”

Looking further afield, Scottish Development International (SDI) – the overseas arm of Scottish Enterprise and HIE – not only offers support to help Scottish businesses to export their products and services but also helps foreign companies to establish a base in Scotland. The organisation has more than 40 offices in around 20 countries and helps global life sciences companies to find the right partners in Scotland, whether it’s one of the 150 pharmaceutical services companies or the 250 medical technology outfits.

“The number of takeover deals in the past year or so demonstrates what an attractive place Scotland is to invest,” Browns says. “Optos was bought by Japanese camera giant Nikon, while Biopta in Glasgow was taken over by stem cell specialist Reprocell, which is also from Japan.

“MSD, the European arm of American pharmaceuticals company Merck & Co, bought IOmet in Edinburgh, with French specialist Sartorius Stedim acquiring BioOutsource. These deals not only show that global investors have confidence in the scientific research that we carry out in Scotland but also in the abilities of our indigenous companies to commercialise those discoveries. Injecting foreign investment can help to accelerate a company’s development.”