Why research alone isn't enough for the life sciences sector

David Lee examines why it can be so difficult to turn knowledge into economic growth

The ability to derive commercial advantage from innovation excellence has been a long-standing challenge for the life sciences sector in Scotland.

All major breakthroughs are based on innovation and great ideas, but how do we harness that intellectual and innovation capital effectively, to turn it into direct economic benefit?

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Dave Tudor, co-chairman of the Life Sciences Scotland Industry Leadership Group (ILG), says: “We are creating more intellectual property per head in Scotland than anywhere, but we see companies buying that innovation from Scotland and making things elsewhere.

Experts say hubs are vital to the continued success of an innovative sector. Picture: IBioICExperts say hubs are vital to the continued success of an innovative sector. Picture: IBioIC
Experts say hubs are vital to the continued success of an innovative sector. Picture: IBioIC

“We need to commercialise more of that innovation in Scotland and do more manufacturing here.

“About £800 million of the £4.2 billion sector turnover comes from manufacturing and we need to increase that to maximise the benefits of innovation.”

Professor Sir Pete Downes, principal of Dundee University, the leading UK university for life sciences research, agrees that the balance needs to shift.

His university has around 1,000 people working in life sciences research and it was named last month as the world’s “most influential scientific research institution in pharmaceuticals” for 2006-16.

Experts say hubs are vital to the continued success of an innovative sector. Picture: IBioICExperts say hubs are vital to the continued success of an innovative sector. Picture: IBioIC
Experts say hubs are vital to the continued success of an innovative sector. Picture: IBioIC

Downes, a pioneering biochemist before moving into academia, says: “When I arrived, life sciences was mainly focused on leading in an academic sense, with great papers and inspirational knowledge.

“Slowly there was a realisation that, if you are substantially funded by public money, you have a responsibility to make the knowledge from your research usable.

“Now we are making things happen through the Drug Discovery Unit. Great research is not enough.”

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This matters in Dundee, where almost one-sixth of the city region economy is based on life sciences,
fuelled by what Downes calls “a complex set of interdependent relationships”.

He says: “The whole agenda of turning knowledge into economic growth has interested me for a long time.

“We have spun out 21 life sciences businesses from the university; the majority are still trading with a turnover of £40m.”

Julia Brown, who heads life sciences for Scottish Enterprise, says: “This interface between academia and industry affects a range of industries but it is particularly important in life sciences.

“How do we encourage companies to come here to engage with that research base and how do we get assets out of the universities into the marketplace?”

Downes says it isn’t just about university spin-outs: “We get a lot of investment at Dundee from major pharma companies wanting to work with us but, unless you get businesses relocating, you don’t maximise long-term economic advantage.

“Start-up companies can deliver that – if we can keep them in the city.”

Downes notes that, despite Dundee’s pre-eminence in life sciences, none of Scotland’s relevant innovation centres is based in the city.

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In the past five years, Scotland has created six innovation centres aligned to life sciences, with a core funding of around £100m: the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre; the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre; the Digital Health and Care Institute; the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre; the Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems and the Data Lab.

Brown sees innovation centres as a “really important element” in the industry-academia interface.

She adds: “It is important they can work on public and private sector projects where they can have significant societal or economic impact.

“Innovation centres allow organisations to take a bit of a risk.

“We need to give them time to do that but make sure they are focused on what is good for the Scottish business base, doing things that will help make us internationally competitive.

“They have to carve out a distinct niche.

“They started at different times and their ability to deliver for the sector has been varied.

“They are a long-term, not a short-term, play and have another five to ten years to show transformational impacts.”

But what of the innovators operating outside funded centres, those entrepreneurs constantly making things happen?

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The strategy says Scotland needs to “attract, develop and retain” entrepreneurial leadership, create a supportive environment for innovators and “nurture serial entrepreneurs”. How can it do that?

Tudor says: “We do not have enough entrepreneurial leadership and we need to build a critical mass.

“We have a good idea coming out of our universities almost every month but how do we support those innovators?

“We need to help them understand how Scotland works, show them the pathway – explain the grants system, give them access to the right people in the Scottish Government. The ILG needs to look at a leadership masterclass-type course for maybe 15 innovators from high-growth companies – to teach them how Scotland operates – and cascade that knowledge through the industry.”

And what about the intellectual property created in Scotland? How aware are life sciences innovators of the need to protect their IP?

Richard Gibbs, managing partner of patent attorney Marks & Clerk in Glasgow, says: “Scottish-based business is knowledgeable about IP.

“Pockets of UK business lack an understanding of what IP can do, and what can and can’t be protected, but Scotland is pro-active and seeks opportunities.

“When you add in the fact that universities have well-organised and knowledgeable business development and technology transfer teams, it is easy to see how the life sciences community is structured to drive and protect innovation. Scotland is well-equipped to help new and developing companies achieve their aims and ambitions.”

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Professor Anna Dominiczak of Glasgow University says a key factor in supporting innovators is playing the long game.

“Long-term funding for innovation is hugely important.

“Sometimes we think it’s OK to push things for a year or two, but initiatives that are not long-term do not produce.”

Brown says hubs are vitally important to the continued success of an innovative sector, including Edinburgh BioQuarter, BioDundee and BioCity near Glasgow.

“It’s about getting that critical mass of people and activity in one place,” she says.

“Things can really happen where you have industry, academia and clinicians sharing the same space, having constant dialogue and developing joint projects. The innovation capital you get from that is greater than when they are dispersed.

“It also gives businesses a safe space to experiment and try new things in a semi-protected environment, with the right entrepreneurs and mentors around them.”

Hans Möller, the director of Edinburgh BioQuarter, agrees that one of its key functions is to stimulate collaboration to drive innovation.

Edinburgh BioQuarter has real strength in stem cell research (with the highest concentration of stem cell researchers in Europe) and regenerative medicine, but Möller is also excited by its strength in informatics and the opportunity to encourage collaboration between life sciences and data science, with the Edinburgh City Region Deal looking to invest further in this area.

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He is optimistic about the future but says the sector needs plenty of plates spinning and must keep supporting innovators.

He says: “To continue at the current growth rate, the sector needs a couple of big successes.

“It’s always hard to predict in life sciences; you can have a really good project but then something happens to the medical side or the funding side and it falls.

“It’s tricky. You need a number of promising projects ongoing.”

Möller says an anchor tenant is essential for a project such as BioQuarter and cites his own experience in running the largest science park in Scandinavia, in Sweden.

“You don’t always need a big company coming in with 500 jobs,” he says.

“You can grow small businesses into larger ones. In Sweden, Eriksson started with a small team of 12 and that grew to 5,000 within 15 years and later became Sony Erik-sson and Sony Mobile.” n

Innovation and Commercialisation

The Scotland Can Do: An Innovation Action Plan outlines the national priorities for innovation. In the life sciences sector, our priorities for action will include capitalising on the work of the innovation and excellence centres, supporting scale-up operations to maximise the impact on our economy, and growing and strengthening our entrepreneurial base. The priorities are:

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Drive growth through collaboration to commercialise the output of innovation and excellence centres

We will support and facilitate development and deployment of commercialisation strategies for key centres for innovation and research excellence.

We will work across the sector to transfer know-how and facilitate exploitation of existing intellectual assets into sustainable production.

Improve on the current ecosystem to maximise economic growth and create more companies of scale

We will ensure Scottish businesses have both the infrastructure and support required for scale-up; we will support the engagement of Scottish companies with recognised international investors to generate larger deal opportunities.

We will build on the Health Innovation Partnership model to develop and pilot Scottish innovation and increase awareness of the health technology assessment process.

Attract, develop and retain entrepreneurial leadership across academia, the health service and industry

We will encourage and reward the entrepreneurial flair of our business, academic and clinical leaders, nurturing the serial entrepreneurs who will continue to contribute to the growth of the sector.

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We will create a more supportive environment for entrepreneurs; enabling the transfer of key individuals between industry and academia to create a seamless flow of ideas and experience across the sector.

Source: Life Sciences Strategy for Scotland 2025 Vision

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