How the Triple-A life sciences sub-sector is maturing as it pushes for growth

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A year ago, the “Triple-A” sub-sector was the new kid on the life sciences block. Fast forward some 12 months and Animal Bioscience, Agritech and Aquaculture is maturing fast and firmly established as a key player as the sector strives for that £8 billion turnover target by 2025.

“I’m really excited. We have found our voice and really mobilised,” says John Mackenzie, chief executive of Roslin Innovation Centre and a driving force behind the creation and growth of the Triple-A industry leadership subgroup.

“We have come together well and geographically, we are fully representative of Scotland – everywhere has a voice. Creating the Triple-A forum and speaking as one gives us a great platform to show off what we have in Scotland, here and to the rest of the world.”

One of the major breakthroughs has been bringing private sector partners – such as Benchmark and Ice Robotics – into the forum, alongside key academic, research and enterprise bodies, including the Roslin Institute, Moredun Research Institute, SRUC, the Agri-EPI Centre, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Knowledge Transfer Network.

John Mackenzie’s own organisation, the Roslin Innovation Centre, is another key player, with a genuinely international focus on growth and innovation.

In the last year, N2 Applied of Norway – which aims to improve global productivity by creating better fertilisers – and Russia’s N2 Pharmaceuticals, a cattle fertility researcher, joined Abacus Bio from New Zealand and Tropical Animal Genetics from India at the centre.

“In attracting businesses here, we are taking a truly international approach and it’s paying off, with companies setting up subsidiaries and recruiting highly-skilled ­workers here in Scotland,” says ­Mackenzie. “At the same time, home-grown companies like Beta Bugs [‘a cutting-edge biotech firm that produces enhanced insect strains for the growing insect farming industry’] are doing amazing things at Roslin.”

As it strives for further growth, the Triple-A group has set itself three key priorities for the year ahead. The first is a benchmarking exercise to show definitively the scale of the AAA sub-sector and its economic contribution.

“When we started, it was hard to get a definitive marker of our GVA and the scale of the AAA opportunity; we did our best but recognised we did not have a fully comprehensive current picture,” admits Mackenzie. “So we have commissioned a piece of work which will update and refresh what we have now and position us to identify future opportunities.

“The AAA sector is closely linked to, and critically important in, the food and drink supply chain, which is worth £6.3bn in Scottish exports. The sector covers a range of other key Scottish sectors – life sciences, chemicals, food and drink and technology – but we are looking closely at our Triple-A definition as covering primary production/pre-farmgate only, not extending into the food processing/manufacturing sector. So this will give us a little more context to our scoping when commissioning the exercise and we should have some up-to-date figures in spring 2020.”

Mackenzie expects the study to paint a positive picture: “There is without question growth and momentum; we can see, for example, that aquaculture is growing quickly. However, it looks good across the whole AAA and there is an inclusive approach and a desire to be a world leader, alongside places like Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor in the US. Scotland has a lot of great AAA international assets at her disposal and we want to capture that in the work.”

The Triple-A has already laid down a marker by releasing news of a major international conference on 29-30 September, 2020.

“This is a great sign of our ambition; it’s Scotland reaching out and inviting the world here to have big important conversations to lead to new collaborations,” says Mackenzie.

“We are looking at the whole Farm to Fork supply chain and where AAA fits in and it chimes well with the One Health and climate change agendas.”

The conference organising committee hopes to bring up to 250 delegates to the University of Edinburgh, and VisitScotland has already committed as an event sponsor.

This greater global focus could be significant for the sector, Mackenzie believes, pointing to the current Scottish Development International priorities review. He says: “There is an opportunity with the SDI review, for us to drive more support and resources into what we are doing internationally to sell our message and value proposition.

“There are also opportunities at home with the new Scottish Enterprise strategic priorities, and for AAA to chime with their new strategic focus on health and wellbeing.”

Alongside the conference and the review of activities, the third key priority for the group is supporting two funding bids to Innovate UK Research and Innovation’s Strength in Places fund – ALICE (Aquaculture, Livestock, and Innovation Cluster of Excellence) and HITIME (Highlands and Islands Technology in the Marine Environment).

“We won’t hear before spring 2020, but the work done already is important,” says Mackenzie. “Both bids have been endorsed by the Triple-A sub group in an open, transparent fashion. That gives us further confidence and momentum as we are supporting a long-term process and taking a long-term view.

“It’s not about the destination, but the journey, and great collaboration between players. It builds new, stronger relationships and demonstrates that we are speaking as one.”

Pipeline flow of firms shows sector strength

While the Triple-A sector grows, pharma services and medical technology remain the cornerstone of the life sciences industry in Scotland – but a sense-check suggests that all sub-sectors are strong.

Dave Tudor, who chairs Life Sciences Scotland’s Industry Leadership Group, says: “We are seeing all sub-sectors growing, which is a real sign of the sector’s health and sustainability.

“The same two sectors remain the greatest contributors – pharma services and medtech – and they are both doing well.

“However, it is great to see all sub-sectors performing – digital health, regenerative medicine, industrial biotech and the Triple-A, as well as pharma services and medtech.”

Dr Andrew Howie, who is acting as interim head of health and wellbeing at Scottish Enterprise, says: “We know from performance data that medtech, pharma services, pharmaceuticals and agritech are doing well.”

He also highlights the fact that agritech is showing compounded annual growth significantly above the sector average of approximately 7 per cent (2010-16).

“Industrial biotechnology and digital health are also significant fast-growing emerging subsectors,” Howie adds. “Their dynamism can be attested by the emerging company pipeline, including Current Health, StormID, MyWay Digital Health, Metix and Talking Medicines in digital health, plus 3Fbio, uFraction8, Xanthella, Carbogenics, Revive Eco, as well as established companies Cellucomp, Celtic Renewables and Ingenza in industrial biotech.”

Industrial biotech is also looking at further growth, with a bid to the UK-wide Strength in Places fund for infrastructure development at Grangemouth, pictured.

Within pharma services, the biologics cluster in Aberdeen is doing well, led by companies including NovaBiotics and Elasmogen.

The Scottish Biologics Facility in Aberdeen celebrated its tenth anniversary recently, with the creation of the £40 million BioHub at the Foresterhill Health

Campus – along with a ten-year commitment to life sciences –

making a strong statement about the sector in the North-East of the country.

All the cities are developing key specialisms, with Edinburgh BioQuarter, which includes the Roslin Innovation Centre, looking for further expansion in the healthcare space, and Glasgow

developing its precision medicine offering.

Dundee also continues to be a powerhouse of life sciences, especially in terms of drug discovery and cell and molecular research.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Life Sciences 2019 supplement.