Innovation Strategies


Innovation drives the success of the life sciences

Deborah O’Neil

Dr Deborah O’Neil OBE FRSE is an immunologist by training. She founded NovaBiotics in 2004, which is now a global biotechnology business developing a portfolio of first-in-class therapy candidates for a number of life-threatening and life-limiting conditions. A board member of the UK’s BioIndustry Association, director and founding member of the BEAM Alliance (Biotechs of Europe innovating in Anti-Microbial Resistance), she also chairs the UK’s Cystic Fibrosis AMR Syndicate and is a board member of the Scottish Life Sciences Association.


  • Innovation is at the heart of the Scottish health and life sciences sector
  • The Life Science Strategy for Scotland sets a target of £8billion turnover by 2025
  • Scotland has a very connected and collaborative life sciences ecosystem
  • There was a 50% growth in life sciences startups between 2014 and 2018
  • Scotland has created a number of new facilities to support the sector.

The health and life sciences sector is a focus for the National Innovation Strategy. The sector is a broad church in Scotland, split into three main areas. Pharmaceutical innovation is probably the one most people know. This involves the development and testing of medicines and vaccines, including clinical research involving health informatics, digital processing and manufacturing.

There is also a great deal happening in health technology areas such as digital health, AI and data driven innovation, imaging devices and diagnostics. This area is becoming increasingly important. Then there are the three As: animals, agriculture and aquaculture. This area focusses on disease and healthcare through a ‘One Health’ approach, as well as looking at food security into the future.

Innovation really is at the very heart of the sector, driven by a constant and evolving need for better products and services to ensure the health and wellbeing of the population. Without innovating, businesses will not survive. Health and life sciences employ over 40,000 people across 750 organisations in Scotland. That figure encompasses world class universities, biotech and medtech SMEs as well as larger pharmaceutical companies, clinical research organisations which provide the services for preclinical and clinical testing of medicines, vaccines, devices, etc. There is also associated non-pharma manufacturing.

Total turnover for the sector grew from £4.5 billion in 2014 to £6.6 billion in 2018 and the Life Science Strategy for Scotland has set a goal to increase that to £8 billion by 2025. Pharma research and manufacturing account for £2.5 billion and £2 billion respectively, supporting £1.8 and £1.2 billion of GVA. Scotland is home to 15% of the UK’s healthtech, pharma and wellbeing companies. It is also home to 31% of clean-bio, agritech and industrial biotechnology companies.

In fact, health and life sciences form one of the four pillars of Scotland's economic strength. Innovation is critical for its success over the next decade. There is significant potential for further growth, particularly in certain high growth sub-areas or sub-sectors.

Across the country there is an ecosystem of talent and bespoke facilities located at the heart of both academic and health clusters, connecting some of the world's leading research and healthcare professionals. Each of the clusters is unique in its specific strengths. They tend to have developed from the research base and focus on expertise in their particular geographic areas.


While they may compete for resources – be it funding, scientific talent or management – they are otherwise complementary to each other. It is a very connected and collaborative national ecosystem. Importantly, Scotland outperforms much of the rest of the world in terms of intellectual capital generated by the life sciences, measured against a number of metrics. The UK Life Science Competitiveness Report places Scotland as number one among the 13 countries that were assessed. We also lead much of the world in terms of life science patents filed per head of population and on the investment that went into the research base to generate those patents. So on an international scale, Scotland already performs well.

Strengths in the country’s health and life sciences sector can be built on, maintaining and growing its competitive advantage. So, an innovation strategy could provide a framework not only to sustain and drive further innovation, but to facilitate the greatest return on that investment. It could enable more innovation to be spun out of our world-leading academic institutions: there is much more that should see the light of day!

The UK Life Science Competitiveness Report places Scotland as number one among the 13 countries that were assessed. 


The BioCity 2019 Life Sciences Start-Up Report showed a 50% growth in life science startups in Scotland between 2014 and 2018. Basic research will still need to be protected, of course. However, spinouts must have support to scale-up and transition from the R&D stage into successful commercial entities.

That is why an innovation strategy is so necessary: to bring all the stakeholders together and provide a framework to ensure that funding, the development of talent, the infrastructure – all the essential ingredients for a successful economy – are brought together.


There is also a need for more bio-entrepreneurs, which links to another national strategy. Bio-entrepreneurs of the future have to be identified and supported in their journey. In terms of infrastructure, Scotland is certainly making headway with a number of new facilities to support the sector. There is the £40 million BioHub in Aberdeen, £65 million of investment in the National Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Renfrew, and more recently in Dundee, what will be a £25 million investment in a Bioscience Innovation District.

Facilities like these will help to retain companies and talent within the country, as well as attracting new organisations into this area. There is certainly potential for the strategy to build on the sector's already strong foundation, generating growth over the next decade and playing a role in realising the sector’s full contribution to the economy.

Innovation is the lifeblood of the health and life sciences sector. In turn, this sector is key to the Scottish economy and already punches above its weight in terms of innovation as the relevant metrics demonstrate.

A National Innovation Strategy will drive the return on investment from innovation in priority areas, realising the high growth potential within the sector. With greater investment more jobs will be created and retained. The current innovation ecosystem in health and life sciences has to be protected and sustained, but equally it can be enhanced further to achieve even more impact both nationally and internationally. That will be essential to reach the £8 billion turnover target in a few short years’ time, and then continue to grow beyond that.