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IBioIC – driving forward Scotland’s bioeconomy

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In the fast-growing UK bioeconomy, Scotland’s contribution to its ongoing progress cannot be underestimated.

With a hugely diverse biotech sector comprising innovation in food and drink and agriculture, through to energy and healthcare, and businesses from multi-nationals to micro-ventures all playing their part, the sector is seeing unrivalled levels of innovation and development. 

And its progress is there for all to see, using the National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology as a benchmark. 

Delivered by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), the plan targets a biotech turnover for the country of £900million from 200 companies by 2025 – as of 2020, already that figure stood at £750million with 130 companies engaged in biotech.

Mark Bustard

“We’re well on track to get to the level of growth we want to achieve, and well ahead of where we hoped to be by this point, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done so far,” says Mark Bustard, chief executive of IBioIC.

“We have an incredible innovation landscape and we are helping to build networks very effectively, for the past six years IBioIC has been committed to growing the bioeconomy and doing all we can to drive this forward.”  

Established in 2014 to deliver the National Plan, IBioIC supports companies working across the bioeconomy in their innovation, connecting industry, academia and Government to bring biotechnology processes and products to the global market. 

And the ventures it has helped support are truly changing the traditional landscape for the benefit of Scotland, the UK and the wider world. Celtic Renewables is a case in point, a key name in UK cleantech which is creating Scotland’s first biorefinery at Grangemouth – currently the country’s biggest contributor to Co2 emissions – showing exactly how innovation is leading to lasting change. 

Further, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the science and research capability in Scotland enabled the creation of a Lighthouse Laboratory in Glasgow, one of a network of UK ‘megalabs’ which continues to process over 50,000 COVID tests each day, and was vital in bringing the virus under control in the country. 

Against a backdrop of such innovation, one area Mark is keen to see further develop is biomanufacturing – building on the UK’s traditional manufacturing roots to create new industries of the future. 

“We need to be driving the science into manufacturing,” says Mark, who became CEO of IBioIC in February 2020, having previously been its commercial director, leading on strategies to accelerate and de-risk commercialisation for biotech businesses. 

“We have a great science research base and a great manufacturing heritage – but somewhere along the way, the UK lost its passion for manufacturing. We saw ourselves instead as an innovation powerhouse. 

“For example, we led the way on developing theraputic antibodies, but we lost the desire to manufacture them – most went to the US and Switzerland, and that capability is still there. 

“Now, we can turn biotech into biomanufacturing, and bring that manufacturing back.” 

The vaccination programme is a case in point, says Mark, and has proved what can be done. 

“Over the last 12 months, we have seen the unprecedented speed at which people worked together to deliver the vaccine,” he says. 

“Manufacturing has never happened that way previously, but I think we now all see the importance of manufacturing here – if we were reliant on other countries providing the vaccine for us, we’d be nowhere near where we are today. 

“We need to create activities at a scale that will have impact, we can’t just focus on fundamental research, we need to grow more UK-based manufacturing in industrial biotech.”

One project which helps to illustrate the ability of businesses to move into such manufacturing capability is in sugar beet, with IBioIC supporting farmers to reintroduce the crop and use it for refining into sugar and ethanol or other biochemicals – enabling the foundations for a number of new economic opportunities.  

“Once we have that indigenous sugar supply, then we can build manufacturing around that. The UK hasn’t done this effectively to date, as they have done in the Nordics, Holland, France and Germany, but Scotland has an appetite to build these industries and their supply chains,” says Mark.  

“It just shows that the opportunities for us can come from right across the piece. When I started this job, I didn’t think I’d be talking to farmers along the East Coast of Scotland, but innovation is coming from everywhere.

“We’re very keen to bring our expertise to bear across a range of sectors into helping where we can and one of our main priorities is to sustain this process and continue to develop and innovate.

“We have to continue the public/private partnerships, and provide the Government with relevant evidence to advise its policy, everything needs to fit together, and we can see that working well in Scotland.” 

With the arrival of COP26 – the UN Climate Change Conference – into Glasgow later in the year, all attention will be turned to sustainability, an area in which Mark believes Scotland is already exceeding, particularly in its work in biotech. 

IBioIC is committed to the development of sustainable supply chains, which it sees as being central in Scotland’s target of working towards net zero by 2045. 

“We want to build sustainability into supply chains, particularly in light of the pandemic which has shown the fragility of complex global supply chains,” says Mark. 

“We saw the rapid breakdown of complex global supply chains for the supply of PPE, medicines,  and chemicals – but there is a significant opportunity to rethink our supply chains and look to re-shore these, building in better sustainability therefore contributing to net zero. 

“This year in particular is a great opportunity for us to demonstrate Scotland’s growth of its bio-based industries. As COP26 rolls into Glasgow, it’s a global opportunity to showcase what we are doing here and to make us attractive to inward investment. 

“We have the nucleus around which to build new clusters and develop new supply chains. There is a big change towards sustainability. As an example, Unilever came out strongly when it said it would eliminate all petrochemical-derived additives from its cleaning detergents by 2030 – once you get traction like that from the bigger players, their suppliers will ultimately follow.

“In the bigger picture across Scotland, we have highest proportion of renewable energy in place, with offshore, wind and hydrogen power, so the whole picture is a very attractive one for companies coming in.” 

And with developing industries comes the need for an appropriately-skilled workforce, with efforts underway to help create that. 

“In life sciences, a significant number of companies are recruiting, and we’re seeing the need to ramp up Scotland’s biotechnology workforce. It’s a great opportunity for us to continue to develop our skills base. Across our skills and research agenda, we are very strong and can capitalise on that,” says Mark. 

“IBioIC has significant work going on in workforce development, from HND level onwards, and we are continuing to build ourselves as a research powerhouse with over 100 PhD programmes underway which are co-funded by businesses.  

“But in building a new sector in Scotland, it isn’t just about the PhD-specific workforce, we need to train and re-skill a wide range of people to enable us to capture new opportunities.”

But to truly take effect, sustainability is something wider society has to buy into, and not just the biotech sector, says Mark. 

“Sustainability is now coming into everyone’s everyday lives,” he says. 

“If you look at products like meat alternatives, there used to be only Quorn, but now there are many other vegetable-based products and meat substitutes. There are green processes around many clothing brands, food packaging, fuel. 

“We’re not ready to move away from our the petrochemical industry just yet, but we are all moving towards a greener way of life and the benefits to health and wellbeing are becoming more evident. 

“But we have a very diverse socioecomonic landscape in the UK, with significant areas of poverty and deprivation, Scotland included. 

“How do we get people living in this situation to buy into sustainability, when it probably seems a million miles away from their everyday life? We need to see a just transition happening so it benefits everyone, not just those people who can afford to buy the high performance electric cars, but the ones who struggle to put the food on the table daily.”  

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  1. Pingback: Spin-out programme to fund commercialisation of biotech concepts - Health Tech World

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