EY explain why Scotland is leading the life sciences revolution

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Picture: Shutterstock
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If the fifth industrial revolution will be driven by natural resources, can Scotland be at the forefront of that fundamental, bio-based change?

What advantages does it have and what levers does it need to pull to deliver its full potential in life sciences? Paul Copland, partner and life sciences lead with professional services firm EY, explains why Scotland is so well-placed to maximise the benefits.

Why in your opinion is Scotland so well-positioned to take advantage of the bio-revolution?

Silicon Valley became the nucleus of the fourth industrial revolution (the digital revolution) largely due to its location, resources and culture: it benefited from American ambition, proximity to large investors and entrepreneurship. Add some great marketing, and the region now attracts the best minds in digital technology.

The next [biotech-based]revolution will seek to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, including food supply, climate change and healthcare for ever-growing populations. Scotland’s location, resources and culture are primed to make it a leader in this new era. You have just about every type of demographic and geography in Scotland – islands, mountains, very rural communities and large cities with developed urban landscapes. This gives us the chance to look at a variety of healthcare problems and think about how we rise to them.

Then there’s our culture, our engineering heritage and entrepreneurial legacy; this is proof that we have it within us to create on a large scale, and there’s every reason to think we could do the same again.

Add to that the NHS, one of our greatest data assets for identifying trends and optimising healthcare on a large scale.

What really makes Scotland stand out in life sciences?

Life sciences has been a far bigger focus of my work in the last 12-18 months and it is difficult for me not to conclude that Scotland is on the cusp of something really special and interesting.

I think there are three specific elements that make Scotland stand out as a global leader:

- World-class academic research, driven by our high-quality universities. There is real admiration and appreciation across the world for what Scotland has produced and will continue to produce, in terms of pure applied research and forward thinking in the life sciences field.

When I talk about life sciences, I mean everything from medicine, advanced therapies and medical devices to aquaculture and agricultural technology.

- The historic entrepreneurial spirit and nature of the Scottish people. Over centuries, we have shown a natural ability to innovate – and in 2019, our modern-day life sciences innovators are using high-quality research to create commercial benefit. Scotland is full of ground-breaking companies developing new therapies and medical devices which take that scientific research to the market, and we are really driving that.

- The NHS is the equivalent of oil and gas when it comes to life sciences. It is one of the biggest untapped resources in terms of the bio-revolution. Unlocking the power of healthcare data to fuel innovation in medical research and to improve patient care is at the heart of today’s healthcare revolution.

Resources – in terms of people and money – will always be finite, but the NHS offers great opportunities as a test bed to deliver patient benefit.

We have great data, brilliant people and really strong connections in Scotland, which is already making a real difference. The value comes from unlocking insights and innovations from curated NHS data; that value could run to several billions of pounds per annum and improve health outcomes for patients and deliver wider economic benefits through “big data”, artificial intelligence and personalised medicine.

However, patient-level records are only truly valuable when they trace a complete story of a patient’s health, wellness, diagnosis, treatments, medical procedures and outcomes.

I have seen this myself at first hand in recent weeks. I was suffering from an eye problem and went initially to the Eye Pavilion in Edinburgh. I was quickly connected with specialists at the Royal Infirmary and Western General, underwent a series of tests, and the team came up with a plan, all within six weeks. Elsewhere, it would have taken multiple appointments and many months. This kind of linked-up approach is here now and offers incredible opportunities for the future.

How important is the “Triple-A Sector” – animal science, agritech and aquaculture – to driving life sciences forward in Scotland?

Our natural resources are perfect for developing new techniques in aquaculture and agriculture, given our heritage – especially our innovative heritage.

I have done a lot of work in the salmon farming sector. The kind of auditor I am, I like to see, touch and feel what a company does – and see and understand what they need to develop. There is some amazing research around fish feed and the salmon farming environment –

it is unbelievable what can be achieved. How do we ensure fish are healthier and larger and how do we look at the next stage of farm production to address the industry’s challenges, especially ensuring we protect our lochs and coastal waters?

There is work going on to create artificial bio-domes which are free of disease and outdoor pollutants; it would be great if Scotland was the country that brought them to the market so those pods were available around the world in locations where they otherwise could not have safe access to fresh fish.

On the agricultural side, the focus is very much on the opportunities presented by technology – understanding the power of data and how to optimise resources.

EY’s latest attractiveness survey, which tracks foreign direct investment to Scotland, demonstrates our agri-food sector has grown two-fold in relation to foreign direct investment projects it brings into the country – averaging ten projects in the past two years compared with an average of under five in the previous five years.

What are the levers we need to pull to deliver on the country’s life sciences potential?

EY’s global research into business growth shows there are seven drivers crucial to generating commercial success. The key drivers to focus on in Scotland’s life sciences sector in the immediate future are digital technology, the customer – including ethical implications – finance and people.

In terms of digital, Scotland is a world leader in informatics and data science and has an incredible wealth of talented tech businesses. This is the platform for everything in life sciences as we have the technical and data capabilities to tackle really big healthcare problems if we can knit that tech and data strength into our excellence in research and innovation.

What are the ethical limits and the risks to growing the life sciences industry? How important is it to take the public on the journey with you and retain public confidence?

It is critical that analysis and innovation adhere with medical ethics and research regulations. Patients have to be informed and need to be confident that their data is being used for their own and for public good, and that their privacy and rights are safeguarded.

There have been public concerns around the use of NHS data, and there’s a job to be done by the life sciences industry to reassure and inform the public exactly what this healthcare revolution really means and the potential of what it can achieve. Only then can the public – who will benefit fundamentally from the digitisation of NHS data – support the revolution in healthcare as we know it, to provide a viable income generator for an NHS that will be increasingly stretched in terms of financial and human resources.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to achieving Scotland’s  full potential?

There are many positives. Scotland is very well-placed in life sciences but we can do better.

There are some fantastic initiatives such as Opportunity North East in Aberdeen and similarly strong collaborations and specialisms in Inverness, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh – all looking to link research, digital and data, and commercialisation to deliver added value.

We are seeing excellence in all these individual areas, but Scotland’s life sciences sector would benefit from an even more unified approach, bringing together local and regional initiatives to focus collectively and joining the dots across all drivers of growth and prevent, even on a small scale, unnecessary duplication.

We also have a strong life sciences community full of people who have been there, tried it and can advise the next generation how to avoid making the same mistakes.

Natural collaboration happens to a certain level, for example in the special interest groups of the Scottish Life Sciences Association, which has a voice into the Scottish Government.

However, we still need to turn a switch to really embed this collaboration – to ensure there is little or no duplication and to provide that overarching umbrella to make sure people know what the big picture is and are working towards that: This is Scotland and this is what we are looking to do in life sciences.

Silicon Valley is an example of what can be done if the players and resources pull together as one.

I remember cringing earlier in my career when I was asked: “What do you want to be famous for?” It might sound a bit twee, but I now understand the relevance of the question in creating clear focus and drive.

“In life sciences terms, what does Scotland want to be famous for? It’s not about doing everything, but doing a few things very well, being globally competitive and making a real difference to patients.

It needs that “one Scotland” approach, with every city and every stakeholder working together with a united focus.

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