The Times & Sunday Times Life Science Summit, Aberdeen February 2020

Last month saw Scotland’s first Life Science summit held by The Times & Sunday Times in Aberdeen.  Between the world-leading research in biologics and the high-quality health data that will drive the creation of digital health solutions, the North East of Scotland is an important high-potential region for life sciences in Scotland.  Furthermore, with ONE actively supporting and strengthening the region’s life science cluster, including the delivery of a £40m BioHub in 2021, Aberdeen is becoming one of the most exciting locations for life sciences enterprises to grow.

Key highlights of the event are described here with links to further reading and resources.

Growing an Infrastructure of Support for Life Science Businesses

Ivan McKee, Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, and a great supporter of building the Scotland’s North East economy, opened his session with fantastic news; the latest turnover results show the sector is up £1bn against the previous year, demonstrating we are well on target to “smash” the £8bn target in 2025.

This target was set by the Life Sciences Industry Leadership Group, and the strategy to realise this ambition is built around the 4 key themes designed to directly support life science business in Scotland:

  • Sustainable Production

This includes the creation and ongoing programme of Scottish Enterprise’s Leadership Masterclasses developed through the The Sustainable Production Group (SPG). Now with its 4th cohort, the course develops both leadership skills and creates an awareness and understanding of the Life Science sector landscape amongst participants.

  • Innovation

The focus here is on what needs to happen to translate the tremendous research and development generated from Scotland’s Universities into start-up businesses to deliver commercial opportunity.

  • Internationalisation

Despite uncertainty and challenges surrounding Brexit in recent months, the industry has continued to see great progress in terms of attracting inward investments. Life Sciences plays a pivotal role in the government’s investment plan published last year.

“In terms of attracting inward foreign investment, Scotland is the best performing part of the UK, outside of London”.

  • Business Environment.

Underpinning all of this is ensuring the right environment for life science business to thrive.  This part of the strategy looks at how government can support Life Science companies with an emphasis on improvements in both the skills and investment pipeline.

Biologics in Aberdeen: the Secrets to Success

Professor Stephen Logan, Chair of the ONE Life Sciences Board, kicked off the panel session by taking us through the strong history of research and biologics in the region, with Aberdeen being home to the first and world-leading antibody engineering company ScotGen. This development led the way to a number of successful spinouts including TauRx and Elasmogen as well as to the establishment of the Scottish Biologics facility which last year celebrated its 10th anniversary.

A Collaborative and Cooperative Community

Key to the region’s success has been the ability to break down barriers of old traditional, scientific disciplines and move to a more inter-disciplinary approach to foster innovation. Encouraging scientists to focus on commercialising their work, creating spinouts and start-ups has only been possible with the North East’s version of the Triple Helix; the collaboration between clinicians, the NHS and academia.  The Foresthill Health Campus has been a key building in enabling this. Professor Logan highlighted John Mallard, who invented the world’s MRI scanner on this Campus, as “evidence of the region’s ability to translate academic research into practical use in the NHS”.

Dr. Caroline Barelle, CEO of Elasmogen, echoed the Chairman’s thoughts calling out the real “collegiate nature of the North East industry,” emphasising how her own company could never have achieved the success it has without collaboration. There was a real community feeling during the event, with the panel feeling that now, with the creation of ONE, Life Sciences in the North East has a real brand, a real identity.

Keeping the Talent

When asked “How do we attract talent to Aberdeen and the North East?”, interestingly the panel stressed again the real cooperative environment inherent in the region and the people. Caroline focussed on the “individuals, companies and characters” that put great effort into working together and showing genuine willingness to cooperate and support each other.  We heard numerous examples of leaders in the sector relocating to Aberdeen and never leaving.

Furthermore, the size of the region means it’s small enough to be cooperative and supportive, whilst large enough to offer companies lots of facilities on their doorstep. Dr Soumya Palliyil, Head of the Scottish Biologics Facility, called out the access to Technology Hubs and “culture of knowledge exchange” as particularly attractive benefits to companies.

The University of Aberdeen is over 500 years old, and the whole notion of how the public embrace medicine, science and learning in the area is strong; there is strong research and strong commitment. Not only that, but with the Aberdeen 2040 strategy, there is significant investment going into science teaching. All these developments should create a richer pool of talent, and greater inward investment.

Investment: Going To The Mountain

While the panel acknowledged that Aberdeen’s geography has historically made it challenging to attract venture capital investment, the speakers emphasised that the strengths in biologics in the region are attractive to investors.  Caroline Barelle described how she has consistently travelled to meet investors all over the world, securing a further £2m for Elasmogen’s growth plans in January of this year.

In fact, one of the key themes in the afternoon’s session was investment.  The complexity of the investment landscape was addressed, including whether companies should select one investment path or combine a mix of angel and VC investment.  Life Science companies should, of course, look at different investment types depending on their growth stage: an early stage start-up is likely to go to a VC or a strategic partner that can provide business growth consultancy as well as funding. However, the general feeling was that investors can and should all work together.

Financial risk was stressed as the biggest risk for Life Science companies. While the scientific risk is great, without good initial funding you’ll struggle to hire the right people and build a solid long-term strategy for your company.  However, one investor stressed it’s not only about capital. Specialist VC’s offering business development support, networks and contacts can add great value to young growing companies.  One of the final thoughts of the session was that spending money efficiently and demonstrating an ability to do so is just as important as attracting funding in the first place.

An Abundance of Biologics Research

In addition to the keynote session with Professor Sir Greg Winter and Dr John McCafferty, inventors of Phage Display and winners of The Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2018, the event showcased the abundance of research and commericalisation based in and associated with the region with presentations and interviews from:

  • Prof Claude Wischnik of TauRx, leaders in developing diagnostics, treatments and cures for Alzheimers
  • Dr Deborah O’Neil of NovaBiotics, a leading clinical stage company developing antimicrobial and antifungal treatments
  • Dr James McIllroy of Enterbiotix, developers of novel microbiome modulating drugs
  • Dr Obinna Ubah of Elasmogen, leaders in the next generation of biologics for inflammatory, autoimmune diseases and oncology
  • Dr Mike Leek of TCBiopharm, pioneers of the first scalable “off the shelf” CAR-T platform, for the treatment of all cancers

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Article by Michelle Waddell, member of the Life Sciences Marketing & Communications team and Marketing Manager at Wyoming Interactive