It’s quite natural for anyone to get nervous before their first day in a new job – but Toby Reid had more reasons than most to feel apprehensive before taking over as managing director of BioCity, the network of life science business incubators that stretches from Newhouse in Lanarkshire down to Nottingham.
Reid has a long track-record of helping to get new businesses off the ground, but having trained as a civil engineer, the world of life sciences was something of an unknown
quantity to him.
“If I’m honest, I was actually quite anxious when I first started because I knew that I didn’t have a thorough understanding of the science behind what all of these life science companies were actually doing,” he says. “Fortunately, they’re the experts in the science but where they often need support is around the establishment and running of the business and that’s where I and the proven BioCity model can help.”
Having studied at the University of Nottingham, Reid became a design engineer and later a project manager at consultancy firm Arup before going into business for himself. After launching his own companies in the leisure and financial services sectors, he then set up Growth Investment Network East Midlands to help entrepreneurs find sources of funding for their businesses. Reid joined BioCity as a director in 2011 to run its site in Nottingham and, over the course of this summer, he also became managing director of the group’s site in Newhouse. At BioCity Scotland, he took over the reins from Diane Harbison, who was interviewed in the winter 2015 issue of BQ Scotland magazine and who is now chief business development officer at Edinburgh Molecular Imaging.
BioCity Nottingham traces its roots back to 2001 when chemicals giant BASF donated more than 129,000sq ft of offices and highly-equipped laboratories to Nottingham Trent University. Trent teamed up with the University of Nottingham and the East Midlands Development Agency to transform the vacant site into the original BioCity incubator, one of the first facilities of its kind in the UK.
The Nottingham site opened in 2003 and now covers 166,000sq ft spread over four buildings. Alongside the office and laboratory space, BioCity also offers business support services to early-stage life science companies, helping entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality.
When MSD, the European arm of American pharmaceuticals giant Merck & Co, closed its site at Newhouse in 2010, a similar opportunity presented itself. BioCity teamed up with Edinburgh-based incubator operator Roslin Biocentre to open BioCity Scotland, which offers 130,000sq ft of laboratory and office space on a 20-acre site just off the M8 motorway.
“I was very excited when I first visited BioCity Scotland,” Reid remembers. “The sheer scale of the site is impressive enough but, crucially, the facilities we have here are second to none and it is these that can make all the difference for growing businesses.”
As well as its two BioCity sites, the group also runs the 36,000sq ft BioHub facility at AstraZeneca’s former Alderley Park campus in Cheshire. BioHub offers a similar mix of laboratory and office space for start-ups and early-stage life science companies and is run in partnership with Manchester Science Park.
Back in Nottingham, where it all began, the group launched its MediCity subsidiary in 2013 at high street retailer Boots’ head office in Beeston, which is part of the Nottingham enterprise zone. A joint venture with the Walgreens Boots Alliance, MediCity offers specialised incubator space and services for businesses working in consumer healthcare, medical technology, diagnostics and beauty products.
Building on the success of this model, plans for a second MediCity site on the BioCity Scotland campus at Newhouse were unveiled in 2015. The Scottish project received £18 million of funding as part of the £1.13 billion Glasgow City Region City Deal, which brings together the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the eight local authorities covering Greater Glasgow and the Clyde Valley.
BioCity and MediCity Scotland have also been designated as an enterprise area by the Scottish Government, which brings with it business rates relief and other bonuses for companies locating on the site. Yet the facilities available are only half the story.
“At BioCity, we don’t just think of ourselves as a landlord,” explains Reid. “Our role, each and every day, is to create an environment in which businesses are more likely to be successful at our five sites and across our BioCity and MediCity brands.”
When it comes to supporting businesses, a quick glance at the figures illustrates BioCity’s success, with a 91 per cent survival rate for supported business across its five sites over the past 12 years.
As a result of this success, there are now more than 250 businesses occupying space across the group’s five sites, which together employ more than 1,000 people. Twenty of those companies are based in Scotland, employing around 150 staff at Newhouse.
“I actually think there is more in the offing in terms of early-stage opportunities here in Scotland than I’ve seen elsewhere,” admits Reid. “The challenge for us will be converting these early-stage businesses into companies with financially-robust business models, that are ready for investment, ready to grow and ready to realise their potential.
“Our Nottingham site is on the verge of being fully-occupied, so we’re now constructing another building adjacent to it to cope with the demand. About 80 per cent of the space taken year-on-year is used by growing companies, not by new companies. In fact, nearly half of the space is occupied by companies that we first met in their development stage, when they were drawing up their business plans.
“Those statistics really tell a story – we’re creating a strong pipeline that will form the next generation of growing businesses and investment opportunities. Our activity is focused on generating new companies, helping them get started, get funded and get growing.
“The model has worked very well elsewhere and is beginning to really ramp up here at BioCity Scotland. I’m sure we can replicate that here because of the number of early stage opportunities that we’re seeing already. Having run the Nottingham site for five years, there’s nothing to tell me that we can’t repeat our success here in Scotland and even take it to another level.”
Reid points to strong interest from Scotland’s universities in the two-day boot-camp BioCity runs as part of its accelerator programme, during which staff and students can work on their ideas for businesses and hear about the services on offer from the group.
Reid goes on to explain the BioCity “five core components” that make up its business support services. First is the fact that all of BioCity’s office and laboratory facilities are flexible and modular, so they can be configured to suit the needs of each company. If a business moves to the site as a start-up but then begins to grow, its office and lab space can be quickly increased to suit its size. The second component is pay-as-you-go services. Companies can access time on expensive pieces of scientific equipment, buy consumables through centralised service and hire executive meeting rooms so that they can host their investors or potential clients.
“We’re removing unnecessary overhead costs or unnecessary capital expenditure for early-stage companies,” explains Reid. “This allows companies to conserve cash for other things that they might need it for.”
Thirdly, the support programmes offered by the group include one-to-one coaching to help entrepreneurs set up their companies. Peer-to-peer support from neighbouring companies, at later stages in their journeys, offering advice and experience to earlier-stage businesses.
Access to finance is the fourth key area of support offered by BioCity. “We have very
good relationships both in regard to awarding bodies and many early-stage equity investors,” Reid says.
“We are also able to help at the early-stage ourselves, investing in a handful of the opportunities coming through. We’ve made a relatively small number of investments to-date but we’ve had a healthy return and we’re now looking to increase that level of activity in the coming months and years ahead.
“One of the biggest challenges for companies in the sector is the stratification of finance. Generally, you have to go to one group for £150,000 another for up to £500,000 and then a different group again for the next tranche. It’s very difficult getting all of your investors aligned and interested at the same time. We see that as a problem, so we want to work with other partners to accelerate that process for our companies.”
Tying it all together is the ‘innovation community’ that has been fostered throughout the BioCity sites, built by companies interacting with each other and by linking into the group’s wider ‘expert network’. “We work very hard to make sure that everyone has plenty of opportunities to interact with everyone else,” Reid explains.
“We’re creating a culture and a forum in which serendipity and opportunity can present itself, with chances to collaborate, jointly promote and present, and to work for or on behalf of other companies. That might be through a breakfast briefing on a particular topic, or through a social event such as a quiz or a football tournament.
“These interactions are crucial. Picture the innovation community as a web with our businesses at the centre. Around them you’ve got support services firms – solicitors, corporate financiers, human resources specialists, public relations agencies, bookkeeping firms – providing the professional advice and guidance that the companies need.
“Around that you have the BioCity expert network, experienced, senior industry figures, UK-wide, that provide meaningful introductions, advice, guidance, mentoring or particular scientific expertise or knowledge to companies when they need it. It’s a flexible resource with a level of seniority and connectivity in the industry that you just wouldn’t be able to access if you were at a typical science park.”
Reid is keen to ensure that potential businesses start-off on the right foot. “In the early-stage support programmes, as part of the BioCity accelerator, we spend a lot of time challenging whether there’s real commercial viability to an idea,” he explains. “We do that by challenging the assumptions that people are making, and then devising ways to go and get the evidence to prove whether those assumptions are right or wrong.
“Often you’ll find that, when a company launches, it has made a lot of assumptions in its business plan and those assumptions can prove to be a very costly mistake at a later stage when it has running costs, it has raised money and it is trying to execute its plan.
“Rather than discovering incorrect assumptions too late, we put a lot of emphasis on tackling those questions earlier on, whilst it’s free and cheap to do so and it isn’t a potential point of failure later on. That allows you to adapt and change your business plan or your business model.
“It also means that you can base your business plan on evidence from going out and talking to potential customers and partners, instead of dreaming up the plan, polishing the plan and then trying to execute it.
Part of Reid’s challenge, now that he’s taken over the running of the Newhouse facility, is to make sure that the community feeling extends across all five of the group’s locations, allowing Scottish companies to interact with their English neighbours and vice-versa.
“There are variations across all of the sites but there is a common thread that is woven into the fabric, a culture of working together for the greater good,” he says. “It is an approach that has paid dividends to date and will continue to do so long into the future.”