Scotland’s booming life sciences sector must keep innovating to further enhance its success - Graham Watson comment

Scotland’s life sciences scene is flourishing, with the sector right on track, according to industry experts, to reach its impressive £8 billion landmark turnover target by 2025.

The latest figures show the industry continues to grow by 7 per cent each year, as it looks to soon be contributing the multi-billion-pound sum to the nation’s economy.

The growth has reached a point where in excess of 770 life sciences organisations are employing more than 41,000 people, making Scotland one of the largest life sciences clusters in Europe.

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How did we get to the stage where Scotland became such a thriving environment in this particular area? There is a variety of reasons. Firstly, the strong and evolving investment ecosystem.

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Scotland has one of the most active business angel networks in Europe and is the second cluster in the UK in terms of the number of life sciences companies receiving venture finance.

Other key factors are the nation’s capabilities in research and innovation that serve the discovery and development of therapeutics and the creation of innovative healthcare solutions, not to mention the collaborative physical infrastructure across Scotland supporting this work – world-leading universities, healthcare systems, and newer investments in biomedical clusters, science parks, innovation centres and more.

According to the Elsevier report for Scottish Enterprise, Scotland ranks worldwide among the top three countries for research productivity and impact.

'Supporting Scottish life sciences organisations to be bold, take risks and explore the international marketplace is important for growth,' Graham Watson believes. Picture: 
Martin Shields.'Supporting Scottish life sciences organisations to be bold, take risks and explore the international marketplace is important for growth,' Graham Watson believes. Picture: 
Martin Shields.
'Supporting Scottish life sciences organisations to be bold, take risks and explore the international marketplace is important for growth,' Graham Watson believes. Picture: Martin Shields.

With 19 universities and higher education institutions, and world-leading research centres that attract some of the brightest international scientists, the triple helix model of innovation between academia, industry, and government is evidently working well in a relatively small and agile country that can unify efforts quickly.

Those scientists are then encouraged to stay in Scotland thanks to the high quality of living that the nation offers. Indeed, recognised globally for its history, heritage and culture, Scotland is a truly international and cosmopolitan country offering an exceptional and affordable location for global businesses to grow.

Fundamentally, it is about creating the optimum investment ecosystem for a rapid increase in innovation.

All of these factors and many more coalesced in identifying life sciences as one of the growth sectors in which the nation could build on existing comparative advantage and increase productivity and growth. That was back in 2015, and just two years later, the Life Science Strategy for Scotland was able to target the industry to contribute £8bn to the nation’s economy by 2025.


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It was an ambitious target set back in 2017, but Scotland had generated more start-ups than any other UK region between 2012 and 2016. Furthermore, the strategy's vision to make Scotland the location of choice for the life sciences community helped to underline an achievable goal.

However, as we move ever closer to the 2025 deadline, how do now we achieve that turnover goal and fulfil the vision set out by the strategy with just three years to go?

There are four key areas in order to achieve the 2025 target: innovation and commercialisation, sustainable production, internationalisation and business environment.

Starting with the first area, innovation and commercialisation, these are two areas very close to our work at InnoScot Health. We work in partnership with NHS Scotland to identify, protect, develop, and commercialise healthcare innovations from within the workforce that improve patient care.

To us, innovation is an exciting leap forward – sometimes the result of brand new knowledge, but more often it is an experimental change or a combination of existing ideas and experiences. In essence, it improves upon something that came before, or fixes a problem that needs a solution, and whether small or incremental, large or disruptive, it is all about change.

At InnoScot Health, we believe embracing that change is the key to delivering a new model of healthcare, and we firmly believe that ideas that originate within the NHS, from the health and social care staff with direct first-hand experience, can be transformational.

Innovation is a fantastic bedrock for success but it needs the support of commercialisation to ensure an idea can reach those who need it. Commercialisation is our end goal. It generates revenue not only for the innovator but also the employing health board, generating vital funds for the NHS to reinvest in healthcare while simultaneously spreading improvements in patient care.


Both factors need to be perfectly married to ensure a positive result. If the life science sector can master the fine balance of both innovation and commercialisation, then it should stay true to its ever nearer 2025 goal.

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On the second theme, sustainable production, this is another key focus for our work at InnoScot Health. We believe that innovation is the key to unlocking a cleaner future for our nation, and helping Scotland become a leader in sustainable healthcare.

Just last year we launched our sustainability innovation call, encouraging the NHS Scotland workforce to aid our nation’s climate goals by submitting their ideas for greener and more sustainable ways of working, whether that be multiplex or lower-carbon devices, new greener packaging, surgical equipment to incorporate plant-based sutures, digital or sensor technology.

We offer a package of support for the most promising ideas that includes up to £25,000 of initial funding, regulatory support, project-management, and InnoScot Health’s extensive innovation expertise.

We as a society need to do more to ensure we help the environment, and through our partnership with NHS Scotland, we are keen to aid them in their goal of net-zero carbon by 2040.

The life science sector will also need to step up and utilise more sustainable production methods for the longevity of not only the planet, but their businesses.

NHS Scotland is looking for sustainable suppliers going forward with other health services and businesses soon to follow suit as we join up policy and goals for a better, more eco-friendly future.


If the life sciences sector can adapt to these changes through innovative practices, then it will continue to secure economic growth for years to come.

The next area is internationalisation, strengthening Scotland’s status as a centre for life sciences and putting the country on the global map for its expertise.

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However, I believe it is not just about securing a strong platform in Scotland but also being confident enough to look to opportunities across the world. For InnoScot Health, whilst our ideas originate here in Scotland, the portfolio of medical devices, products, and technologies we have commercialised are in use in hospitals, care homes and on-scene emergency settings not just in Scotland but around the world. Similarly, many of our spin-out companies are tapping into global opportunities.

For instance, the OpLight, the lead product from 2017 spin-out Clear Surgical is sold in more than 20 countries and has expanded from health into other sectors include veterinary. Meanwhile 2015 spin-out Aurum Biosciences has attracted international investment as it develops novel therapeutics and diagnostics for Acute Ischaemic Stroke and potentially other life-threatening and serious conditions.

Supporting Scottish life sciences organisations to be bold, take risks and explore the international marketplace is important for growth. Whether that be for partnerships, deals or recruiting talent, we have a positive profile in Scotland and must ensure we really fly the flag for home-grown innovation and compete on the international stage. If those international markets can be tapped into, then the sky's the limit for the nation’s life sciences sector.


Whilst the opportunities are significant, this all must be underpinned by a supportive business environment for sector growth. These are also areas on which InnoScot Health is particularly focused, including our work in helping access funding and investment while supporting the likes of innovation fellowships and clinical entrepreneurs.

Robust regulation is key to successful innovation and is an area that we are very passionate about at InnoScot Health. We offer consultancy and advice on regulation to all NHS health boards, plus companies or universities working in partnership with NHS Scotland to develop medical devices, in turn ensuring awareness and compliance with legal responsibilities, and to support the design and development of products under an accredited regulatory framework.

We know the crucial element regulation plays not only in keeping companies legally safe but also in developing products and services that consumers and businesses can trust. We are at the forefront of building regulatory expertise in Scotland, a necessary precondition to a thriving and world-leading life sciences environment that can attract more interest to Scotland.

In summary, all of these factors and many more will contribute to a key three years for our nation’s economic growth prospects as we look beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

With strong foundations in place – and InnoScot Health’s firm focus on achieving positive health, social, and economic outcomes through connectivity and collaboration – I believe the life sciences market should be capable of reaching its £8bn target by 2025 and continuing to grow past that to become a pivotal building block of the Scottish economy.

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Graham Watson is executive chair of InnoScot Health, which has been working in partnership with NHS Scotland for 20 years to inspire, accelerate, and commercialise impactful healthcare innovations. It has three shareholders – Scottish ministers through the chief scientist office, NHS Tayside, and the Golden Jubilee national hospital.



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