Edinburgh BioQuarter unleashing wonders on the world

Jim Murphy, then secretary of State for Scotland, 'met' BioQuarter success the i-Limb. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Jim Murphy, then secretary of State for Scotland, 'met' BioQuarter success the i-Limb. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Edinburgh BioQuarter keeps our small nation at the forefront of exciting scientific developments, writes Mike Capaldi

Scotland has always been at the forefront of medical science – from the introduction of chloroform in surgery in the 19th century to the development of the world’s first commercially available multi-articulated prosthetic hand in the 21st – and this quest for innovation continues with the work of Edinburgh BioQuarter.

Queen's Medical Research Institute. Picture: Contributed

Queen's Medical Research Institute. Picture: Contributed

This unique concept brings together scientists from the University of Edinburgh and NHS Lothian with commercial research companies to collaborate and accelerate the development of new drugs, diagnostic tools and medical devices to treat diseases. This huge enterprise has made Edinburgh a leading European destination for translational medical research, fast-tracking drug development from “bench to bedside”.

Six years ago, the University of Edinburgh joined forces with Scottish Enterprise and NHS Lothian to create the Edinburgh BioQuarter – to foster deeper links with industry through collaborative research, create new companies based on Edinburgh’s research base, and encourage a culture of commercialisation in the NHS and among academic researchers. My Commercialisation Team was established in 2010 to deliver these aims and in just over three years we have spun out seven new life sciences businesses. These include i2eye Diagnostics – developers of the world’s first visual field analyser for children and vulnerable adults (and winner of Scottish Enterprises Best New Life Science Company in Scotland award this year) and Aquila BioMedical, a pre-clinical contract research organisation for certain nervous system and neurological disorders. The latter has already won major contracts with global pharmaceutical companies.

Our commercialisation pipeline has 13 more companies and we could spin out more than seven in the next two years alone. These include FibromEd, which generates hepatocytes, liver cells, for drug toxicity testing based on Edinburgh’s excellence in stem cell biology.

Bright future

Also in the pipeline are firms focused on drugs to treat rare kidney diseases, an enterprise pursuing new drug formulations to treat cancer pain and a company developing a next generation clinical diagnostic medical imaging technology.

The team has also delivered new collaborations with international biopharmaceutical companies. In addition to agreements with UK-based GlaxoSmithKline and Astra Zeneca, US- based Biogen Idec and Belgium-based Galapagos, collaborations are also in place with the Crack-it consortium, led by Johnson & Johnson (US), as well as a research programme for fibrosis with Galecto Biotech AB (Sweden).

The future for collaborations is bright too. The prospect list of companies for potential collaboration has more than 100 names on it and the buzz about what we are achieving will help us to get more collaborations.

It also means the venture capital community sees these partnerships and the company spin-outs and finds it more worthwhile getting on a plane to visit us. My team also supports the annual BioQuarter Innovation Competition, launched in 2011 to generate new ideas for products and services that benefit human health. The competition has already produced more than 100 new products or business concepts.

Translating research into patient benefit

A key part of BioQuarter’s strategy to translate research into patient benefit is the availability on the BioQuarter campus of a business incubation centre. “Nine” opened in 2012, offering laboratory and office space for both newly formed companies and established leaders in the biopharmaceutical industry seeking close proximity to the clinical research assets on site. Nine is now home to 13 companies and that number is set to grow as the BioQuarter research community expands.

The BioQuarter Commercialisation Team is part of a larger, 25-year project of expansion on the site. Over the next five years, BioQuarter expects to be home to more than 2,000 researchers, working in areas such as stem cell therapy at the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, and on new therapies for MS and related conditions at the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic. New research centres planned on site include The Brain and Body Institute (2016), while the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children is due on site from 2017.

We need to plan how to keep the momentum of the BioQuarter Commercialisation team going once public funding runs out in 2015.

My preference would be to privatise ourselves, eventually expanding our offering beyond Edinburgh. We have pulled together a really experienced team that has been of huge help to the University of Edinburgh and NHS and there’s no reason we cannot start to give that help to other people if they want it.

Part of that vision is that we would eventually look to raise some form of venture capital so we can invest in companies as well as creating and spinning them out.

This would help to keep the life sciences sector in Scotland moving forward and enable us to continue to stimulate a pulse of innovation, collaboration and commercialisation within Edinburgh that delivers benefits to patients around the world – and continues the legacy that puts Scotland at the forefront of medical science.

• Mike Capaldi is commercialisation director with Edinburgh BioQuarter www.edinburghbioquarter.com