Life Sciences 2022: Expert views on how Scotland can deliver international growth

As Scotland seeks to deliver international growth in life sciences, we asked a range of experts what actions were needed to move Scotland on to the next level globally

The question: What does Scotland need to do to be a genuinely global player in life sciences?

Dame Anna Domniczak, Chief Scientist (Health), Scottish Government and Regius Chair of Medicine, University of Glasgow

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Scotland is already a global player in life sciences and is well-known and well-respected internationally.

Dave Tudor. Picture: Lisa FergusonDave Tudor. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Dave Tudor. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

We are recognised for our excellence in our life sciences industry, our clinician scientists, our university medical schools, our NHS – and the ability of our people to support research progress.

When I ran a clinic, patients would say to me, ‘Doctor, are you doing some research? I want to help.’ There aren’t many countries like that.

However, we can always do better and we are focused on the adoption of innovative new treatments for the NHS, to make Scotland even better as a place to come for life sciences.

Dave Tudor, Managing director Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre

Dr Caroline Barelle. Photo: Ross Johnston/Newsline MediaDr Caroline Barelle. Photo: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media
Dr Caroline Barelle. Photo: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media

Scotland has a vibrant and diverse life sciences sector, where the overall and individual sub sector underlying growth is very good. The sector is on target to exceed the £8 billion GVA target by 2025. The bedrock of this excellent growth is excellent academic research and development resulting in SME creation and growth, strong delivery of skills and improving company growth.

Fundamentally, for Scotland to continue to be a global player in life sciences there are several important points for the sector to consider. Firstly, these three critical areas need to have continued investment, focus and delivery where the ‘triple helix’ of government, academia and industry work together to drive momentum into the life sciences sector.

Secondly, we need to rebalance [increase] the manufacturing output and return versus the academic and pharma services value that we get today. There are options to achieve this through adoption of digital solutions, increased fiscal support for company manufacturing growth and investment in early growth manufacturing capability.

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Finally, Scotland is well-placed to capitalise on the new and exciting drug modalities that the pharma industry is developing. For example, ATMPs (Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products), RNA vaccines and therapeutics, and oligonucleotides. This is an opportunity to use Scotland’s academic and innovation capability to create new pharma supply chain value.

Jan Robertson. Credit: Scottish EnterpriseJan Robertson. Credit: Scottish Enterprise
Jan Robertson. Credit: Scottish Enterprise

The life sciences industry is an exciting, vibrant place to be and Scotland is very well-placed to continue to add value to the global picture and sustain the previous incredible sector growth.

Dr Caroline Barelle, Chief executive of Elasmogen

To be a genuinely global player, Scotland needs an integrated and effective life sciences ecosystem that builds and capitalises on existing strengths within Scotland where industry, academic institutes and the NHS work in synergy.

There is a good foundation. However, to truly compete on a global basis, we need to exploit what we have to deliver not only a pipeline of innovation but critically also the downstream support structure to enable companies to grow and excel.

Professor Andy PorterProfessor Andy Porter
Professor Andy Porter

Equally important is to identify our weaknesses in the fast-paced world of life sciences and to embed these skills into the education system early on to develop talent for the future.

All of this comes hand-in-hand with supportive government policy, internal and external investment and the right people at the right time to drive this vision.

Jan Robertson, Interim director of global trade at Scottish Enterprise

Scotland’s life sciences sector is internationally renowned thanks to our incredible workforce, world-class universities, supportive business ecosystem and innovative companies that are located here.

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Despite this, the global potential of Scotland’s life sciences sector remains huge and a key way of tapping into this is through exports. Not only are exports vital to Scotland’s economic wellbeing, but an international focus also plays a vital role in encouraging the innovation and competitiveness that are essential to the future development of the life sciences sector.

Supporting innovative Scottish companies to scale up and grow through exporting is a priority for Scottish Enterprise.

Alix Mackay. Picture: Lisa FergusonAlix Mackay. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Alix Mackay. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Our Scottish Development International trade specialists based here in Scotland and in more than 30 locations across the world will continue to bang the drum for our country’s life science sector, opening doors for Scottish firms to target markets in the process.

Alix Mackay, Founder and director of the Life Sciences Marketing Academy

Scotland needs to match the world-class science with a culture of world-class marketing and sales discipline. There are two approaches to becoming a genuinely global player – make the country “famous” for one thing it does better than anywhere else, or take more of a “back-end” approach of punching above our weight with respect to exporting and attracting inward investment at a company level.

While the “fame” route is a long game, requiring some bold moves at the top to prioritise one specific area of the industry over others, the “back-end” approach can be implemented tomorrow. However, to increase individual company revenues from international markets, the world-class science on which these businesses are based must be matched with world-class marketing and sales.

This is relevant because one of the biggest myths in our industry is that young companies aren’t in a position to apply marketing and sales models that drive multinationals and other industries. But, at its most basic level, no matter what stage the company is at, it is in the business of influencing the behaviours of others to change the way they do things. This is complex and doesn’t happen by chance. It needs a highly proactive, systematic approach that aligns to each stage of the customer’s decision-making process.

This is what our most successful life sciences enterprises have – a professional internal sales process run from their Scotland HQ. They’ve created this culture because they know this is the bridge between scientific innovation and realising its value to the world.

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Mark Cook, Co-chair, Industry Leadership Group, Life Sciences Scotland

Scotland already has everything it needs to be a global player in life sciences and can compete very favourably with the “golden triangle” in south-east England. We have a diverse population with a mixture of rurality, deprivation and urban coupled with a positive can-do attitude. Data and the ability to follow longitudinal groups of patients throughout their lives makes Scotland the place to innovate, test and develop medicines and devices.

We have a committed government that values and supports our sector with bodies such as SHIP (Scottish Health and Industry Partnership), Scottish Enterprise and the Chief Scientist’s Office all being enthusiastic supporters.

To continue to grow at scale and pace, we will need to support the development of skills in our workforce, the data infrastructure and our ability to internationalise.

One big change we should strive for is raising global awareness and recognition of Scotland as a destination for life science, so global companies don’t land in London with generic United Kingdom plans, but rather recognise the value we have to offer and the fact that we have a Scottish plan that focuses on what we are excellent at.

Professor Andy Porter, Professor of medical biotechnology and director of the Scottish Biologics Facility, University of Aberdeen, and serial life sciences entrepreneur

A “unicorn exit” would transform the Scottish life sciences community and has certainly been a hugely influential injection of “street-cred” to life science clusters in other parts of the world, including Cambridge and several in the US. There are a growing number of exits happening in Scotland with ever-increasing values but still nothing that has been seen globally as truly transformational. Life science businesses typically have to play the long game to succeed.

We are entering a new period of maturity in the sector in Scotland and I think we will see several more exits soon, but maybe not that “magic” unicorn. A growing emphasis on helping successful Scottish companies to scale, rather than accepting a cheque for their IP portfolios, maybe should receive more importance than it currently gets.

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For many years, competition and not collaboration was the watchword of Scottish universities and it is hard to argue that this approach hasn’t worked for those at the top of the pyramid. However, with a growing focus on the impact our universities have in the “real world”, it is encouraging to see that they are becoming increasingly flexible and keen to work together to answer the big questions of the day.

This trend of working together is itself maturing, and life sciences companies with joint ownership across two or more universities are becoming increasingly common.