Scotland in 2050: Life Sciences - growth ambitions and the challenges ahead

Joanna Boag-Thomson, Shepherd and Wedderburn's Head of Life Sciences, on the challenges and opportunites ahead for the sector in Scotland. 

26 October 2018

From ground-breaking discoveries such as penicillin and insulin, to the development of the MRI body scanner and the creation of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, Scotland has long punched above its weight in life sciences and pharmaceuticals, but how do ensure this continues? 

Recognising the strength of these sectors, but also the ever-changing political, cultural and economic times in which we live, Shepherd and Wedderburn has commissioned the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute to consider the challenges and, more importantly, help identify where the exciting opportunities lie for these sectors. 

Its initial report, Scotland in 2050: Realising Our Global Potential, has started a conversation with Scottish businesses and organisations active in all sectors of the economy, whose views will inform the Institute’s final report, which will be published early next year. We invite you to join that conversation.

In 2017, Life Sciences in Scotland published the Life Sciences Strategy, setting out ambitious targets for the sector to 2025, central to which is increasing total turnover to £8 billion over the next seven years.

While Scotland has excelled historically, we can also learn valuable lessons from other small nations with successful life sciences sectors, such as Belgium, which currently significantly outperforms Scotland.

The broad geographical spread of patients across remote areas of Scotland potentially affords life sciences and e-health companies a group of willing participants for trials of e-health devices, allowing patients to benefit from remote health management.

With pockets of the Scottish population enjoying less than optimal health, Scotland is also a prime candidate for medical research and healthcare studies. However, Brexit may have a significant impact on clinical trials in the UK. Earlier this month, the US-based medical research group Recardio suspended all UK activities due to uncertainty around the approval process for new medicines when the UK leaves the EU.

There are other potential challenges to contend with, ranging from software bugs, glitches and misuse of technology that can lead to mistakes and adverse outcomes for patients. Does Scotland have the skillsets available to take advantage of the opportunities to improve health technologies?

Earlier this year, Skills Development Scotland commissioned a report from the Digital Health and Care Institute to analyse the digital health sector. 

That report identifies digital technologies as an emerging market and major opportunity. 

It found that while Scotland’s health and care sectors were catching up on digitisation, skills shortages remain a bottleneck to us fully capitalising on opportunities to design e-health systems and products for rollout to medical staff, here and overseas. 

Through conversations with leading professionals in the life sciences, education, healthcare and digital technology sectors, we hope to identify the opportunities as well as ways to address perceived barriers and combine initiatives across these sectors to deliver growth for Scotland.

Existing collaborations between the private sector, Scotland’s universities and the National Health Service are a testament to successful, innovative working practices already in place to develop and commercialise new technologies and drugs, create high-value employment, attract the best global talent, and make a positive contribution to Scotland’s economy.  

Scotland has long been viewed by highly skilled recruits as a fantastic place to live and work and as a top destination for inward and homegrown investment, backed by a number of public sector-led initiatives focused on bringing high value manufacturing to Scotland.

While, for many years, international life sciences businesses have seen Scotland as an attractive destination to establish global operations, is the Scottish business mindset as keenly attuned to the international export opportunities the sector offers? 
Undoubtedly, Brexit presents challenges, but these should not be used as an excuse to hunker down. 

The initial report Scotland in 2050: Realising Our Global Potential from the Fraser of Allander Institute highlights opportunities for Scotland to increase its exports.

If sterling remains at depressed levels against other currencies, this presents an opportunity to increase exports, though a lower pound also means higher import costs, and to adapt, businesses will need to source more products domestically so they can remain competitive. 

We also see major pharma companies looking to Scotland for research collaborations and high-end projects, but does the sector in Scotland do enough to engage with opportunities for international trade in emerging markets such as Indonesia, Asia and Africa?