Building the foundations of Scotland's key life sciences sector - comment

The industry in Scotland needs a more level playing field for the construction skills required, says David Young, partner at international property and construction consultancy Thomas & Adamson.

Young calls for a change to the relevant tendering process. Picture: Eugeneonline.

Scotland’s life sciences sector is one of our country’s “crown jewels”. It not only accounts for £2.4 billion gross valued added, £1.3bn in exports, and nearly 40,000 jobs, but as one of our most productive industries, it provides important innovations and medicines that continue to help address some of society’s greatest challenges.

The industry is undoubtedly flourishing due to a mix of government investment and strategy, a strong focus on research and development (R&D), and our world-class further-education sector, which provides a consistent pipeline of talent to help nurture and grow the sector to an expected £8bn by 2025.

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In full: Life Sciences 2019 Scotsman magazine
Young joined Thomas & Adamson in 1991, becoming partner in 2000. Picture: Tracy Gow.

Furthermore, the downturn of Scotland’s micro-processing industry, which at its height saw the country attract a large number of multinationals, also means that we have an abundance of highly-skilled, process-driven workers proficient in operating in controlled environments; essential for technical roles within this sector.

Combine this with the innovation hubs that have sprung up across the country in recent years – all of which perform a vital function for start-ups – and the £300 million spent on R&D annually, Scotland is well-placed to continue to build upon its stature as a world leader in life sciences.

However, whilst most such firms across the country expect to increase exports and grow workforces, Scotland’s home-grown construction industry is seeing precious little growth from this strategically important sector.

Due to a combination of limited exposure and knowledge of the building process, life science firms often see construction as a necessary evil, with projects frequently demanding specialist contractors to adhere to the correct protocols, quality of functionality and stringent timelines.

This, quite rightly, demands the attention of construction and consulting experts that can help navigate the often-complex web of restrictions and regulations. Organisations also have the challenges of wrapping all these around appropriate contracts that protect both the contractor’s and client’s interests.

Complex projects

As a specialist consulting firm, we understand the intricacies of delivering these types of projects throughout the UK. We have acted as project managers and cost consultancy on a variety of life science projects, namely gene and cell therapy facilities throughout the UK, as well as the core business areas in biotech, clinical trial processes, drug packaging, cryo storage and sterilisation and manufacturing facilities for medical manufacturing supply and research and development companies.

These projects have totalled more than £100m, with Scotland-based projects accounting for 30 per cent of this investment. The variety of different solutions and the governances that need to be applied and understood for licensing of manufacturing life sciences facilities means that an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the validation process and requirements are key. It also needs to be a team delivery, not only by the consultant, but also with input and drive from the client.

With the myriad of options available in the construction industry, it requires experienced and proven individuals to lead and guide the team.

The quality management aspect of this work is critical to every build and is highly time-consuming, meaning that non-specialist construction firms struggle to compete with specialist contractors. However, whilst this can maintain the integrity of a project, I know of a number of smaller, local firms that could flourish and compete with the four to five large firms that dominate the life science construction sector in Scotland, who incidentally are based and operating largely outside of Scotland.

If this is to change, and we are to help support local firms win a greater number of contracts, adjustments need to be made to the competitive tendering process. Under the current process, local firms who may have the specialisms and expertise required to take on life science projects are being priced out of tenders due to the prohibitive nature of the bid costs.

To put this into perspective, if a construction firm wanted to bid for a £1m project, it would be required to pay in the region of £50,000 upfront, without any guarantee of winning the contract. In practice, the only way a new, smaller Scottish firm could bid is through one-on-one negotiation, which generally requires a company like ourselves to mediate to drive the best costs, programme and governance for the client.

Whilst there are good reasons for this delivery process, the opportunities are certainly there if Scotland wants more home-grown firms to benefit from our current life sciences boom. However, we need to find a way to help Scottish construction firms take on a greater role within this specialist sector, without risking its overall effectiveness, productivity or profitability.

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