Has Scotland been failing to develop a world vision?

Industry leaders believe Scotland is missing a trick in not selling itself abroad, says David Lee

Scotland’s ambition to be a global player in life sciences has been clearly and regularly stated – but what does this mean in practice? Essentially, three things: making Scotland a location of choice for global life sciences businesses, developing an international mindset and using networks to drive business development and create international SMEs.

Dave Scott, senior director of Tepnel Pharma Services and a member of the Life Sciences Scotland Industry Leadership Group, says the whole sector needs to raise its game to attract more global businesses here.

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“Scotland is a great life sciences hub, all the way from academia through to the private sector and healthcare.

Scotland can help companies in Kentucky and Indiana and the SLA has signed memorandums of understanding with both. Picture: ShutterstockScotland can help companies in Kentucky and Indiana and the SLA has signed memorandums of understanding with both. Picture: Shutterstock
Scotland can help companies in Kentucky and Indiana and the SLA has signed memorandums of understanding with both. Picture: Shutterstock

“We have heritage and world-
leading innovation. But when businesses go abroad, the biggest trick they miss is not talking about the big picture – they talk about their own businesses, but need to talk more about Scotland.

“Lots of companies do not understand the assets on their own doorstep and miss chances to sell Scotland as a whole.

“If we all work together to grow the pie, we will all get a bigger share of the pie.”

Scott also argues that there are not enough global corporates based in Scotland, given the strength of life sciences here.

Scotland can help companies in Kentucky and Indiana and the SLA has signed memorandums of understanding with both. Picture: ShutterstockScotland can help companies in Kentucky and Indiana and the SLA has signed memorandums of understanding with both. Picture: Shutterstock
Scotland can help companies in Kentucky and Indiana and the SLA has signed memorandums of understanding with both. Picture: Shutterstock

Scott Johnstone, chief executive of the Scottish Lifesciences Association (SLA), says Scotland does have some smaller exciting global players: “We are fortunate to have businesses like NuCana in Scotland – they will do their business where it makes sense for them.”

Johnstone praises Hugh Griffith for taking NuCana, a clinical stage bio-pharmaceutical company focused on improving treatment for cancer patients, to a successful Nasdaq stock market flotation.

“If you have the desire and the savvy, you can do it from Scotland,” Johnstone argues.

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Scottish Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy Paul Wheelhouse agrees we can attract and retain high-quality companies in Scotland.

He says: “ReproCELL recently opted to base their European headquarters in the West of Scotland Science Park, following £150,000 of funding from Scottish Enterprise, to support the company’s relocation – creating new jobs and boosting the local economy.

“TC Biopharm recently secured a €4 million grant from the European Union’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, to help develop next-generation cancer therapies at Eurocentral in Lanarkshire, creating jobs and driving innovation in the area for the foreseeable future.”

Professor Anna Dominiczak of Glasgow University believes we can do better in creating a location of choice – but recognises the need for a truly pan-Scotland approach.

“If you wish to be the best, you need to be the best on the global scene, not local or parochial.

“But this is a long-term proposition, it does not happen overnight. We need to all work together to make it happen. It’s not about six or 12 months, it’s a ten-year project and it all comes back to excellence.”

Professor Pete Downes, the principal of Dundee University, suggests we might need to look beyond Team Scotland.

“There is not one centre in Scotland big enough to be truly world-class, compared to California or Boston.

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“It’s not just university research, but all the components of a functioning innovation ecosystem for life sciences.

“You need a dozen universities in that space and huge investment for business and industry. We might have to think of ourselves not just as a Scottish cluster, but a UK cluster.”

Johnstone is looking at new markets and new partnerships in the United States and last month he hosted his counterparts from the life sciences sectors in Kentucky and Indiana. The SLA has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with both.

“Fundamentally, they want (and I want) to partner, to co-develop, to create solutions to health issues,” says Johnstone.

“There are real opportunities with devices, diagnostics, drugs and digital health – and if we solve problems together, that will create jobs somewhere on the planet. It’s not necessarily about having jobs here – that is not real partnership.

“We share a goal of delivering better healthcare – it’s very exciting when you get it right.

“It’s all about joining the dots. Companies in Indiana and Kentucky are doing things we can help with and if Scottish businesses want to go to the United States, Kentucky and Indiana are as good a landing zone as anywhere else.

“They are not as busy, competitive or as high-priced as somewhere like Boston – and it’s a more straightforward way into the US market, especially in terms of devices and diagnostics. Indiana is right up there as a global medtech hub.”

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Johnstone also sees huge potential in China: “It’s an enormous market and will be a big focus for the SLA.

“But wherever we look, it’s all about co-development with partners to solve healthcare issues – and that can be anywhere in the world.

“Solving those problems involves getting close to the customer.

“With the excellent relationship with the NHS, we can do that in Scotland, but we also want to do it in the United States or China.”

However, the global market can also be a huge challenge to Scotland: “I share the ambition of Dave Tudor and others to do more manufacturing in Scotland but there are big challenges from the US with Trump’s ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ mantra.”

Wheelhouse recognises alternative challenges from Europe: “We want to continue our vital collaborative work with European partners – a considerable challenge in the face of the impending threat of Brexit.”

In this context, Wheelhouse argues we need to shout louder about life sciences in Scotland. He says: “We should not give up any opportunity to tell the world what we have to offer in Scotland.”

However, it is not just about shouting louder, but being bolder in going into new markets, says Tudor. “Even big businesses are only exporting to two to three markets – but many of them are in America and if you can crack America, you can crack anywhere,” he says.

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Julia Brown, director for healthcare, life and chemical sciences at Scottish Enterprise, agrees: “Many life sciences businesses think about Europe or the US as their primary objectives, but what about India, China, Japan, South America? There is much less market knowledge.”

Scott says the secret to a successful export strategy is physically going into a new market, adding: “I don’t think you can say you have a truly international mindset until you have been to a territory and talked to people.

“You can use all the whizzy tech platforms but it’s still very true that people buy from people after looking into the whites of their eyes.”

Brown says there is also a confidence issue: “Do Scottish life sciences have an international mindset? Yes and no. Yes, because they see their market as a global market; they know it’s not just about selling products and services in Scotland. But do management teams in Scotland see themselves as the ones to go through to those global markets, or are they looking to partner with others along the way?

“Scottish businesses are more than capable of doing some of this international development work themselves, but don’t always seem to have the confidence, the complete skill set or the experience, to do that. I’d like to change that.”

Scott agrees, saying: “It shouldn’t be about an exit strategy for fast-growing companies, it should be about a re-investment strategy.

“There is a bit of classic Scottish reluctance, but when we do press ahead, we are very good at it.”


Life sciences is a global market and we will increase the number of Scottish companies and organisations successfully operating overseas, and promote Scotland as a location of choice for life sciences, building on existing networks and connections and creating new strategic relationships. The priorities will be to:

Leverage Scotland’s networks

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We will maximise the use of our existing network of contacts and information within the Scottish life sciences community (industry, academia and government) to enable and facilitate business development across the sector with overseas organisations, helping to create “international“ SMEs.

Promote life sciences in Scotland

We will continue to actively promote Scotland as a leading life sciences location, ensuring that we market, support and highlight the success of our companies, research base, health service innovations and clinical research.

Develop an international mindset

We will continue to support our company base to raise their ambition and confidence to exploit international markets and opportunities by sharing valuable in-market experience and international networks.

Source: Life Sciences Strategy for Scotland 2025 Vision