How the leaders of Scotland’s life sciences industry are motivating the next generation

Ask any group of children what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get the same answers again and again: footballer, astronaut, and the more modern “Instagram influencer” all feature on the wish list of dream jobs.

Picture: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/Shutterstock

But after seeing the way in which medical researchers and manufacturers have led the fight against the coronavirus with vaccines and treatments, perhaps “scientist” will start to appear on that list much more often.

Recruiting the next generation of bright young things into the life sciences industry is certainly at the top of Alison Culpan’s agenda. As director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry Scotland, she wants to capitalise on the general public’s new-found interest in science and medicine during the pandemic.

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Culpan has been struck by the way in which the public became involved in scientific research over the past 18 months, including the large number of people who had signed-up through mobile phone apps to take part in studies into Covid-19 and its effects.

Mark Bustard. Picture: Chris Watt

“It shows that the public will respond if you can clearly explain why they need to take part in studies and how those studies will help people – you can tap into that community spirit,” she says. “The next step is to harness young people’s interest in science so that they get involved, rather than just looking at its results on their mobile phones.

“We need to get young people visiting our science centres around Scotland and taking part in events, like those at the Edinburgh Science Festival. Out there are the smart young people who will come up with treatments for cancer and diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. We need those bright people to go into innovative areas like science, rather than careers in banking.”

Culpan also hopes that one of the legacies from the pandemic will be a willingness by the public to share their health data in a safe and secure way, so that more companies will be attracted to Scotland to conduct clinical trials.

“Scotland has a great opportunity here – we have really rich and high-quality health data, but it’s not always linked together,” she says, highlighting how she hopes next year’s Scottish Government health data strategy would help to join the dots.

“Who would have thought that we’d be having conversations in the aisles of Tesco about clinical trials and vaccine manufacturing?” Culpan adds. “We need to tap into the public’s interest in and understanding of medicines development and roll-out to help the NHS get other clinical trials up and running again.

“If we need to hire extra medical researchers from abroad in the short term then that’s what we should do in order to restart and boost clinical trials in other areas, like cancer and diabetes. In the longer term, we need to encourage more young people to study science and pursue careers in the industry.”

Perhaps young people will take inspiration from the raft of Scottish life sciences companies that were mobilised to tackle Covid-19 and its consequences, such as NovaBiotics.

The business, founded in 2004 and based in Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, was already working on infections, inflammations, and respiratory diseases.

“It was just a couple of dots for us to join – asking what we could do with technology developed for cystic fibrosis and very serious chest infections that could have an effect on Covid-19,” says chief executive Deborah O’Neil.

“We mobilised very quickly and were able to find a new way of working in our laboratory and get grant funding, so we got busier and our team grew.”

The company’s NM002 drug candidate is about to enter a phase-three clinical trial as part of the international “Remap Cap” study to test its effectiveness at treating community-acquired pneumonia (Cap), which can be caused by influenza, Covid-19, or serious chest infections. Cap kills three million people each year globally.

The drug not only has anti-inflammatory properties but also antiviral and antibacterial properties, meaning it could be an alternative to using antibiotics, helping to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistant infections.

If successful, the drug could be used to treat the sickest Covid-19 patients in intensive care units).

NovaBiotics has its own laboratory in Bridge of Don and was able to offer fridge and freezer space to fellow life sciences companies in the region so they could store precious chemicals while they couldn’t access their own spaces in university laboratories during the height of the lockdown. O’Neil praises the collaborative spirit in the North-east during the pandemic as “phenomenal”.

Many companies based at BioCity Glasgow – the life sciences facility in the former MSD factory at Newhouse, North Lanarkshire – have also been involved in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

Toby Reid, the former managing director of the site and now executive director of parent company We Are Pioneer Group, highlights the work done by drug discovery services company BioAscent in helping to set up the Lighthouse testing centre in Glasgow, and Roylance Scientific, which has seen a dramatic increase in business as it provided storage and logistics.

He also points to the work of The Antibody Company and other antibody specialists in the production and analysis of antibodies in the fight against Covid. More broadly, he praises the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through all his tenants.

“Scale-ups are about having a scalable business model, in which you’re executing the same process but better and faster, while a start-up is about being opportunistic and looking for that market traction to be able to apply your technology,” he says.

“When you get a seismic shift in the landscape – like we did with Covid – it’s those companies that are fleet of foot and most opportunistic that are able to respond; we’ve seen that across our tenant base.”

Mark Bustard, who took over as chief executive of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) just weeks before the first lockdown, also praises the efforts of companies working in the industrial biotechnology sector for the rapid speed at which they collaborated to solve problems, especially tackling shortages in the supply chain, such as hand sanitiser.

“A lot of the barriers were brought down because of the need and the urgency – that’s a cultural change, and I’d like to think we won’t go back to the old ways of everyone working in silos,” he says.

“A number of companies that would have been traditional biotechnology businesses – making chemicals, additives, and so on – were able to pivot based on their knowledge. For example, Scotbio was making a blue food additive and was able to use its manufacturing platform to make antivirals.

“IBioIC was able to pivot too by supporting areas that previously might have been seen as being on the periphery of what we do. We supported vaccine development, animal disease models, and anti-adhesive materials to go on personal protective equipment (PPE), so the virus couldn’t attach itself.”

The centre also worked with Forth Valley College and the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service to help the Lighthouse lab in Glasgow with its recruitment and training, and also its processes, so it became more efficient. Bustard says: “Our core biotechnology skills were brought to bear on a number of areas that had an impact on the Covid response.”

Report shows continued growth for sector during the pandemic

A joint report released by the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Scotland has revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped the Scottish life sciences industry from growing.

Pharmaceutical companies now employ the equivalent of 5,600 people in Scotland, up from the 5,130 recorded in the previous report in 2018, with the total rising to 15,250 jobs once employment in the industry’s supply chain is included.

Employment in the life sciences growth sector stood at 18,000 in 2019, while the total number of jobs in the life sciences cluster – including all related public sectorroles – was last estimated at about 40,000, although this latter figure is due to be updated next month.

The latest gross domestic product data shows that output in the life sciences growth sector increased by 3.7 per cent in the most recent quarter, to September 2021.

ABPI Scotland director Alison Culpan says the pharmaceuticals sector provides “well-paid jobs, often in economically deprived areas”.

The majority of the roles are based in North Ayrshire, the Highlands, and Dundee, while the average annual salary for someone working in Scotland’s pharmaceutical industry is £35,600, compared with the nation’s annual median income of £24,486.

The figures also showed that the gross value that Scotland’s pharmaceutical industry adds to the nation’s economy rose to £1.8 billion from £1.7bn in 2018, while the value of its exports of manufactured goods climbed to £575 million from £550m.

Companies also continued to invest cash in research and development, with their annual spending now sitting at £165m, up by almost £45m since 2012.

Culpan highlights the need to continue to invest in Scotland’s infrastructure to help the industry grow. She points to the £35m Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre being built in Renfrewshire by AstraZeneca, the Centre for Process Innovation, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Scottish Enterprise, UK Research & Innovation, and the University of Strathclyde (see pages 20-21 for more on this project).

“Centres like these demonstrate that we have expertise in Scotland and that’s what attracts inward investment,” Culpan says. “Investment in existing manufacturing capabilities is also important, such as GSK’s plans to build a solar farm to power its plant in Irvine.”

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Life Sciences 2021 supplement.