I have had reason of late to consider the nature of targeted economic development in two disparate countries on either side of the globe. Both are awash with excellent science, have free and highly regarded educational systems, and provide exceptional healthcare to their populations. One is the home of whisky and soccer, the other the home of rum and cricket.
Scotland has experienced two decades of intensive public support via its economic development organisation Scottish Enterprise, which has initiated a plethora of programs, including early stage Proof of Concept schemes, educational fellowships to nurture and mentor budding entrepreneurs (the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Enterprise Fellowship scheme), and later-stage government supported investment vehicles (e.g., the Scottish Co-Investment Fund).
Barbados, on the other hand, is at a much earlier stage of development, as far as its life sciences industry is concerned, though growing rapidly. Only a few years ago they set out to grow their bioscience base and to develop their biotech credentials by attracting world-class clinical and academic scientists to join their growing cohort of home-grown, ambitious, forward-thinking nascent entrepreneurs. Now, it seems they have sufficient substrate and expertise to move to the next level, and thus seem about to embark on their next stage of evolution. That evolution includes proposals for the development of a world-class biotech park and the implementation of a series of commercial strategies designed to leverage their educated workforce and their unique geographical location, as a natural distribution hub between South America, North America, and Europe.
This is an exciting journey for Barbados, and there is a lot it can learn from Scotland’s experience. The science base and the inventiveness of Scotland are strong assets. This is evident by any number of statistics, including the world’s highest number of bioinformatics research groups per head of population, a single University (University of Dundee) producing more life science citations than Cambridge and Oxford, more medical research per head of population than anywhere else in Europe, and a ranking as No. 1 in the world for stem cell research-based citations.
However, from an entrepreneurial perspective, these have not translated into commercial opportunities at a level that you might expect. For example, in 2010, Scotland’s life sciences companies attracted only £36 million of equity investment. This compares poorly with other biotech hubs, including England, and pales into insignificance against the large hubs of the US.
The reason, often mooted, for this situation is a lack of significant venture capital in Scotland. The fact is, even though early stage companies in Scotland are supported by the aforementioned government initiatives as well as by a vibrant angel network, the funding outlook for early stage biotech companies tends to hit a wall when searching for significant late-stage funding.
As a nation, Scotland has prided itself for its distinctive approach to health care, most recently seen in abolishing prescription charges at a time when England increased its cost. Within the biotech industry, Scotland has also focused most of its life sciences economic development resources on the healthcare sector, including drug discovery, clinical trials, and medical devices. However, we now know that biotech has a ubiquitous role to play in a diverse range of industries. An excessive focus on healthcare can be disadvantageous to those other markets and may steal resources away from overall innovation. This has left Scotland with a perceived narrower portfolio of investment opportunities, of interest to a narrower range of venture funders, and ultimately, addressing a narrower market opportunity. There is evidence now that Scotland is altering its course and developing a wider range of bio-based commercial opportunities, including biofuels.
Barbados, at an earlier stage of development, could learn from Scotland, and ensure that its nascent biotech industry is not overly narrow. It already seems to be committing early to engagement with non-health markets, particularly alternative energy and the environment. This is especially important, since Barbados is endowed with rich and untapped natural resources and biodiversity.
A strategic concerted approach by Barbados Bioscience, the country’s development agency Invest Barbados, and the University of the West Indies (UWI), could carefully position the island as leaders within the Caribbean. Ambitious proposals in the works include those for the new bioscience park, new bioscience regulation and new technology transfer systems.
And deal activity is also ramping up. Earlier this month, a lucrative commercial partnership was announced between the UWI and BioJet International, a leading global supplier of renewable jet fuel for aviation and transportation industries. Under the agreement, UWI and BioJet will jointly develop biofuels IP under the canopy of a proposed UWI/Biojet International Biofuel Research Institute. Deals such as this, which build important strategic relationships with industry and neighbours, are extending Barbados’ reach and influence in the region and wider afield.
If it was to achieve a fraction of the £3.1 billion that the life sciences sector contributes to the Scottish economy annually, then it could be very well pleased with itself indeed.