Opportunities are knocking for the Scottish life sciences community

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There’s a lot going for the sector in Scotland and now is the time to get that message across. David Lee reports

The life sciences sector in Scotland is on the up – and with an ageing population driving a fast-growing domestic and global market for new healthcare products and services, the opportunities are enormous.

Scottish Government minister Paul Wheelhouse is shown how samples are analysed by Claire Steven as he officially opens Eurofins Biopharma product testing facility in Livingston. Picture: Greg Macvean

Scottish Government minister Paul Wheelhouse is shown how samples are analysed by Claire Steven as he officially opens Eurofins Biopharma product testing facility in Livingston. Picture: Greg Macvean

Scotland’s universities are powerhouses of life sciences research, the company base is increasing and the Scottish Government has identified life sciences very clearly as a priority economic sector.

The “triple helix” of industry, the NHS and academia is collaborating effectively and, on a global scale, there is little dispute Scotland punches above its weight in life sciences.

The numbers look good. About 700 life sciences businesses in Scotland provide around 37,000 jobs, including large clinical test centres such as Quintiles, which employs more than 1,000 people, Charles River Laboratories and ClinTec International.

Since 2010, a collaborative, Scotland-wide effort has resulted in a 29 per cent growth in sector turn-over (to £4.2 billion) and 24 per cent growth in added economic value to around £2bn annually.

However, the ambition lies much higher, with a target to grow an industry with a turnover of £8bn by 2025 – and there is a sense that much more can be done.

Paul Wheelhouse, Scottish Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy – and co-chairman of the Life Sciences Scotland Industry Leadership Group (ILG) with Dave Tudor of GSK – says: “While £8bn turn-
over over the next eight years is ambitious, we are confident this can be achieved.”

However, Wheelhouse recognises an immediate challenge: “The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will have a significant impact on both Scotland’s reputation as a choice research partner and access to future funding.

“Brexit poses a very real danger to the future success of the Scottish life sciences sector, which is why we continue to press for continued membership of the European single market and customs union.”

Overall, though, Wheelhouse is positive: “Scotland has both the knowledge base in our highly skilled workforce, research capabilities and a vibrant and diverse company base to build on an already thriving life sciences sector.”

Tudor says: “Scotland has an excellent life sciences package to offer.

“The UK has a great fiscal and regulatory environment and in Scotland you can add a unified NHS and very good access to a government which is very focused on life sciences. Also, people love living in Scotland.”

Dave Scott, senior director with Tepnel Pharma Services and a senior member of the ILG, says: “We need everyone to be singing from the same hymn sheet and buying into this message – that Scotland is a great place to locate a life sciences business. If we speak with one voice and promote Scotland as a hub, that’s a very powerful message.”

Julia Brown, director for healthcare, life and chemical sciences at Scottish Enterprise, says tough, specific growth targets are important: “£8bn is a stretch goal, but it’s about doing something for the long term.

“How do we structure and organise ourselves to be sustainable in the future? It’s really important to set a turn-over target; to have a turnover, a company needs to have a product or service on the market. It is not looking ten or 20 years forward to what might happen.”

Brown says the real strength of Scotland is genuine collaboration: “The fact that the life sciences community came together to draw up a strategy to drive turnover up is significant.”

With a vision mapped out to 2025, the Life Sciences Scotland strategy, published in February, identifies four themes to deliver the vision:

- Sustainable production

- Internationalisation

- Innovation and commercialisation

- The business environment.

Within each theme are priorities, which are summarised and analysed over the coming pages.

They highlight the scale of the challenge, raising major issues about skills, funding and investment, manufacturing, supply chains, infrastructure, technology, economic growth, exports and more.

So where should the rainmakers focus their energies within Scotland’s huge life sciences umbrella?

A major conference next Tuesday, developed by The Scotsman and the ILG, will identify specific action points to drive the strategy forward.

Tudor says three key areas underpin the four themes: growing exports from Scotland, increasing employment in Scotland and ensuring Scotland is recognised for its innovation excellence.

Brown says there must be a clear focus: “As a country of five million people, we cannot be a world leader in everything.

“Where can we play to our strengths and not dilute our resources?”

Brown and Tudor both recognise medtech and pharma services, which each make up about 40 per cent of the sector in Scotland, as very strong areas.

Brown highlights the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow and the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University as specific hubs where Scotland is leading the way.

Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, regius professor of medicine at Glasgow University, says: “We need to select areas where our chances are the best and agree we will pursue these areas relentlessly.”

Dominiczak stresses that, although the SMS-IC hub is in Glasgow, it serves the whole of Scotland and plays in a global space. The centre uses a range of techniques including DNA sequencing, genomics and metabolomics to gather knowledge, then uses it to “stratify” patients and identify effective, targeted treatments for different groups.

She says: “The old medicine was trial-and-error medicine; you prescribed a drug and, if it didn’t work, you prescribed something else. Precision, or stratified, medicine is about knowing what to prescribe, based on analysis – so as not to do harm, to be much more efficacious in treatment and to save on the enormous NHS drug bill.”

Dominiczak believes Scotland can excel in this field, and in diagnostics generally.

“The prevention of chronic diseases is a huge area and we have a strong SME community developing tests, tools and apps to be used close to patients; we can be very good at that,” she says.

“We can benefit from the NHS, its pervasiveness in Scotland and its excellent patient records.”

Scott Johnstone, chief executive of trade body, the Scottish Lifesciences Association, says: “We have an integrated NHS which really wants to co-develop products and services with business and we can grow the economy that way – by providing healthcare solutions.”

Dominiczak says healthcare solutions and economic development are not an either-or choice.

She says: “If you bring through successful new drugs to treat pancreatic cancer, everyone benefits: the SME providing the test; the pharma company making the drug; the patients whose lives are prolonged; and Scotland, which becomes known as the place in the world to treat pancreatic cancer.

“If you are the best in the world at something, there is an economic benefit and a health benefit. The two go hand in hand.”

Dominiczak argues Scotland’s life sciences cluster is going places: “Our greatest strength is that triple helix: academia, industry and the NHS working successfully together.

“We are ready for success but we need an extra push. We need to boast, to tell our story better.

“The excellence of the Scottish life sciences sector is not yet well-known enough globally.”

Richard Gibbs, managing director of patent attorney Marks & Clerk in Glasgow, says the size and closeness of the life sciences cluster is a real positive.

He says: “Part of the enjoyment of working in Scotland is that it’s a close-knit community with research and businesses at all stages of development.

“It offers the chance to work not only with the world’s leading academic facilities and globally connected companies, but also to get involved with smaller businesses at the inception of an idea.”

Johnstone urges the sector not to be too hung up on big numbers – but to focus on doing things well. “It’s not always about size,” he says, “it’s always about quality.”