The Big Interview: Edinburgh BioQuarter director Hans Möller

The science park at Stanford University in the US was the brainchild of provost and dean of engineering Frederick Terman, who spied the potential of a site focused on research and development, generating income for the institution and community.

Hans Moller admits to being concerned about the European Medicines Agency moving from London to Amsterdam. Picture: Chris Watt

Now known as Stanford Research Park, it laid the foundations for the formation of Silicon Valley, and saw Steve Jobs founding the ground-breaking NeXT Computer, while Mark Zuckerberg grew Facebook to 750 million users from 20 million while its HQ was in the park.

There are now more than 400 science parks around the world and counting, according to Unesco, with Edinburgh BioQuarter among the names on the list.

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It unites life science companies, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, the University of Edinburgh’s medical teaching school as well as leading health and bioinformatics research institutes.

Highly complex, cutting-edge and life-changing scientific work takes place here, with the hub boasting pioneering capabilities in regenerative medicine, healthcare data and informatics and translational medicine, “from bench to bedside”.

However, Edinburgh BioQuarter director Hans Möller has in mind a simpler means of assessing its significance – what he dubs the “taxi test”.

He formerly headed up Ideon Science Park, which was the first site of its kind in Sweden and northern Europe, and under his stewardship it added a tall, highly distinctive office and hotel property known as Ideon Gateway, whose facade changes colour with the daylight.

Möller would bet £100 that if you jumped in a taxi in Lund, where that facility is located, and asked the driver to take you to the city’s innovation centre, they would drive you to Ideon Gateway.

“If I do the same in Edinburgh, I won’t get to Edinburgh BioQuarter, but my vision, in maybe five years, is that the driver will ask: ‘Would you like to go there or some of the other innovation centres in the city?’”

The BioQuarter is certainly making vast strides in boosting its offering, with work starting in October last year on a new two-storey, 1,200-square-metre modular building offering a mix of specialist office and lab space. The building is situated in the south of the BioQuarter next to Nine and the Centre for Dementia Prevention.

Nine was the site’s first commercial building, which opened in 2012 and is now fully occupied, housing more than 20 life sciences firms, while one of the world’s largest studies into Alzheimer’s Disease is taking place at the Centre for Dementia Prevention.

NHS Lothian’s £150 million Royal Hospital for Children and Young People and Department of Clinical Neurosciences is due to open this year, after some delays and bringing a further 1,100 staff or so to the site, and the University of Edinburgh’s £50m Centre for Tissue Repair will open in 2020, making the site one of the largest concentrations in the world of stem-cell scientists with the addition of around 250. Additionally, a masterplan for Edinburgh BioQuarter allocating space for new accommodation creating a “modern urban” environment, including cafés, a hotel and gym, received outline planning approval in 2013.

Möller is keen for the site to be appealing, with pedestrian-friendly walkways and cafés, to help recruit talent, “which is always a challenge”. More than 7,000 people work at the campus, and it is home to 900 hospital beds in the Royal Infirmary. By the end of this year there will be more than 1,100 hospital beds.

The aim is to revolutionise health and wellbeing with a view to changing people’s lives. “We need to be disruptive in that, and game-changing,” he says, noting the greater healthcare costs that come with an ageing population and increased focus on preventative rather than reactive medicine, for example.

The Swede took on his current role in October, moving from Newcastle, where he had been innovation director at North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

He has been getting to grips with the BioQuarter and its own structure, network and opportunities, and believes that no two science parks are alike, with each having its own stakeholder model, strengths and weaknesses.

The vast majority operate via the so-called “Triple Helix” model, fusing the public and private sectors with academia, he explains. Edinburgh BioQuarter’s partners comprise Scottish Enterprise, NHS Lothian, the University of Edinburgh and City of Edinburgh Council. “We need to develop that model, of course, but it’s a very good starting point,” says Möller.

Work is in hand to define and create the BioQuarter’s future, and a business plan covering the next five to ten years is set to be approved in the coming months.

Möller says he was born in an old city hospital in Sweden that, in fact, later became a science park.

But his professional foray into the sector didn’t come until, ironically, he was off work ill from his role as chief executive of an IT firm he had founded, having stayed on after an exit to an American company.

Waylaid by a bad cold, he grew restless and started to think about the next phase of his career. His interest was in supporting start-ups and he developed concepts around an accelerator programme. Once he was back to full health, one of the people he spoke to about such a plan was a headhunter charged with filling the chief executive seat at Ideon Science Park. “It was serendipity,” says Möller.

The Swedish facility describes itself as “one of the most exciting places in Europe” and received pivotal backing from late Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad, whom Möller credits with being very generous both financially but also in supporting the young entrepreneurs on-site.

The science park now hosts 9,000 people and 400 companies, with firms including Bosch, Sony, Volvo and Huawei having research and development departments or offices there. Möller plans to bring to the BioQuarter what he learnt from his time at Ideon – good and bad. “I used to say I’ve made every mistake I can think of, but hopefully I’ve learned from them. A science park is not defined, it’s a continuous development… sometimes the innovation works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Ideon Gateway, which has become a leisure destination in its own right, is a success he is keen to emulate in some form in Edinburgh. It really changed the perception of the Swedish science park “from a boring site with lots of closed buildings into something else more open and inviting”, and he is aiming for an “iconic” building in the BioQuarter. Edinburgh’s strong profile is also an advantage he is keen to leverage. “I know it helps already.”

That said, Möller acknowledges that uncertainty over how painful the UK’s exit from Europe will be is a sizeable hurdle, with EU-funded research programmes of particular concern. There has also been much debate over the European Medicines Agency upping sticks to Amsterdam from London. Such a move is “not a good sign”, he says.

As for his own task of navigating highly complex subjects under his BioQuarter remit, given that he doesn’t have a scientific background, he says: “You start to learn the language and of course you have a conceptual understanding of what they’re doing, even if you don’t understand the details or the depth of it.” It can, in fact, be an advantage not to be scientific, he says, as those with a deep insight can become too deeply entrenched in the details of the research.

His contribution to such a discussion is on the commercial potential and the business-development side of things as he looks to see the site achieve his targets.

Of his ultimate ambition he says: “I really want Edinburgh BioQuarter to be famous for being instrumental or catalytic in revolutionising health and wellbeing.”