Drop the phrase ‘life sciences’ into conversation and people will immediately begin to imagine medical researchers wearing long white coats, wandering around laboratories and discovering medicines to tackle diseases. Yet the life sciences industry in Scotland is much broader than simply human health.
From tackling pests in order to protect the crops growing in the fields and the fish being farmed in the seas all the way through to improving the health of the livestock being reared for the food chain, the scientists working in Scotland’s businesses and universities are squaring-up to some of the most pressing issues facing the world today.
As well as making globally-important medical discoveries, Scotland also has a rich history of pushing forward advances in the fields of animal and plant research, including the development of new varieties of potatoes and soft fruits better suited to cope with our changing climate, and the creation of Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, which was born 20 years ago. 
When it comes to animal health, few sites can rival the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus in Midlothian, on the southern edge of Edinburgh. The campus is home to the world-famous Roslin Institute, the birthplace of Dolly the Sheep, and to the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, along with hospitals for animals of all shapes and sizes.
“The Easter Bush Campus is already a centre of excellence with the largest concentration of animal science-related expertise anywhere in Europe, but we want to take that a stage further and become a world leader by 2025,” explains John Mackenzie, chief executive of the existing Roslin BioCentre and of the new Roslin Innovation Centre, which is due to open in the summer of 2017. The current Roslin BioCentre offers traditional incubation space for life science businesses, while the new innovation centre will offer something a little bit different. The three-storey building will include 41,000sq ft of flexible laboratory and office space that companies can rent on a 12-month ‘easy in, easy out’ or longer-term basis, along with facilities that will be shared with other users on the campus, including a gym, a shop and a science outreach centre for visiting schools and other public engagement events.
“The innovation centre will allow businesses to better collaborate with the staff and students on the site and to tap into their expertise,” says Mackenzie. “The open lab and office space will allow them to work together – or to work more privately in partitioned areas if required – while the recreation facilities mean people will also be able to have more of those unplanned moments or ‘random collisions’ where they can just talk about the weather or discuss their work.”
A ‘pop-up’ incubator has opened in the nearby Sir Alexander Robertson Building and companies already using the pop-up include: Greengage Lighting, which supplies agricultural lighting, sensors and control systems and which relocated to Easter Bush from London; Kajeka, a spin-out from the Roslin Institute that provides visual software for big data and network analysis; and Roslin Technologies, a company launched by the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh-based private equity advisor JB Equity to commercialise research from Roslin Institute and the Royal Dick Vet School. JB Equity is currently raising a £15 million fund to support commercialisation.
“We’ve already had strong interest from a whole range of companies, from multinationals through to spin-outs and start-ups,” adds Mackenzie. “In the medium- to long-term, we aim to have between 15 and 30 tenants using the Roslin Innovation Centre as their new business location of choice for companies undertaking strategic, commercial and collaborative research in the animal and veterinary sciences, agri-tech and ‘one health’ industries.”
Scotland not only has a rich heritage when it comes to agriculture, but also has an historic presence in the petro-chemicals industry. Grangemouth, which lies to the west of Edinburgh, is one of the largest refineries and chemical complexes in Europe and Scotland is now looking to bring together two of its most dynamic sectors – oil and gas, and life sciences – through the arena of industrial biotechnology.
“The whole point of industrial biotechnology is to wean the chemicals industry off its reliance on fossil fuels,” explains Roger Kilburn, chief executive at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) in Glasgow. “Instead of extracting oil and gas from underground, using them as feedstocks to create products and then throwing those products away and starting again, industrial biotechnology offers the opportunity to use more sustainable feedstocks.
“One hundred years ago, the petro-chemicals industry didn’t exist – now it’s worth US$3.8 trillion (£2.9tn). If the 20th century was all about industrialising chemistry then the 21st century is going to be all about industrialising biology.”
The IBioIC brings together industry and academia to develop the industrial biotechnology sector. Its academic members consist of 18 of Scotland’s universities and research institutes, while its 62 industrial partners – which pay to be members of the centre, demonstrating the way in which they value it – range from household names such as Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever all the way through to start-up companies.
“Scotland has three main advantages when it comes to industrial biotechnology – we have readily-available feedstocks, we have the infrastructure in the oil and gas and petro-chemical industries, and we have a skilled workforce, both in our highly-active universities and in industry,” says Kilburn.
He points to three major feedstocks that Scotland aims to develop: wood, which can provide cellulose for processing into feedstocks; seaweed and other marine flora, which can be used to produce ingredients for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; and both commercial and industrial waste. All three can be viewed as sustainable sources, which can help to fuel the circular economy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The IBioIC is already running 20 projects, which have an average value of £250,000 each. The centre is also at the heart of developing skills in the sector, funding 28 PhD studentships, around 20 collaborative masters’ degrees, and higher national diploma courses introduced by three further education colleges this year. 
“We often talk about the four ‘colours’ of life sciences,” adds Kilburn. “Red, which is human health; green, which is agriculture and food and drink; blue, which is marine and aquaculture; and white, which is industrial biotechnology and which actually impinges on all three of the other colours.
“Scotland has a rich research base in areas such as synthetic biology and genome mining and so it makes sense to apply these areas of life science study to industrial biotechnology. This is an area that has a long way to go in its development – it’s going to be an exciting journey.”
Synthetic biology brings together the worlds of biology, engineering and information technology (IT), using computer power to model how biological processes could be altered and then stepping in with genetic modification to change those processes’ outcomes. A report from the Scottish Science Advisory Council in October 2014 highlighted the broad range of economic benefits that could come from harnessing synthetic biology, including industrial biotechnology, the growing of crops for generating renewable energy and in precision or stratified medicine.
Another important component in the country’s diverse life sciences ecosystem is the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) in Stirling, which brings together 26 companies and 13 research organisations. The centre supports collaborations between businesses and universities, from fish and shellfish health through to breeding and stock improvement.
Fish and seafood mean big business in Scotland – the aquaculture industry is worth £1.8 billion to the nation’s economy and provides more than 8,000 jobs. The size of Scotland’s aquaculture industry and the expertise available in its research institutions have been among the factors that have helped to attract businesses to the country, including Sheffield-based Benchmark Holdings.
The Alternative Investment Market (AIM)-quoted company owns Fish Vet Group, which offers clinical and diagnostic laboratory facilities in Inverness for the fish farming industry, while its Benchmark Animal Health subsidiary is developing a base on the BioCampus science park on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
One of the locations that exemplifies the breadth and depth of Scotland’s life sciences capabilities is the European Screening Centre (ESC) at Newhouse, in North Lanarkshire. MSD, part of American pharmaceuticals giant Merck, closed down its research centre on the site at the end of 2010, but the state-of-the-art equipment and facilities available at Newhouse were rescued.
Roslin BioCentre and BioCity Nottingham teamed up to open BioCity Scotland on the site in 2012 as a home for life sciences companies, adding the MediCity Scotland incubation centre in 2016. BioCity Scotland and the University of Dundee also worked together to bring a key part of the £169 million European Lead Factory (ELF) to the site to carry out drug discovery work.
The ELF is a consortium of 30 partners and was set up by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a major public-private partnership that brings together the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries & Associations (EFPIA). The ESC is one of the partners for the ELF and carries out biological screening, chemistry and computer modelling of molecules and testing some of the 500,000 samples of compounds stored by ELF partner BioAscent at Newhouse to see if they could be used to develop drugs.
The Newhouse site has already been involved in the search for drugs to combat cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases, as well as anti-microbial resistance. The ESC is now also involved in setting up the UK Translational Agri-sciences Consortium (TASC), a proposed alliance that will bring together scientists from global agri-chemical companies Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta along with academics from the James Hutton Institute and the universities of Dundee and St Andrews to turn research on plant health into methods for protecting crops.
“We have recently grown our staff from 20 to 25 people and many of them have extensive experience in industry,” explains Phil Jones, director of the ESC. “We recognised that these skills and experience are not only applicable to human health but could also be used in other parts of the life sciences, such as agri-sciences.
“There are clear needs for this type of work – when it comes to food security and pest control, the world’s population is continuing to grow and so there will be a greater requirement for food in the coming decades. There are also clear requirements in areas such as aquaculture, which is a significant industry globally.”
Jones adds: “Our connection with the University of Dundee is really important. There are a number of techniques that we don’t have access to here, so having the expertise and facilities at Dundee adds considerably to our activities. Collaboration is a key part of what we do – all of our programmes are collaborations.