Innovation in Edinburgh

Guest Blog Post from Dr Mike Capaldi, Commercialisation Director – Edinburgh BioQuarter

Scotland has always been at the forefront of life science innovation with Edinburgh having played a key role, from Lister’s discovery of antiseptic, Simpson’s discovery of chloroform and the creation of the first genetically engineered vaccine (for hepatitis B) to the cloning of the world’s first mammal, Dolly the sheep.

Innovation was at the heart of all these past success stories. Today, Edinburgh and the Lothians continue to be significant contributors to Scotland’s innovative and growing life science sector, accounting for almost half of Scotland’s biotechnology industry. The development of the Edinburgh BioQuarter perhaps epitomises the direction in which the Scottish life science sector is adopting to remain a significant player on the world stage. Edinburgh BioQuarter’s role is to capture biomedical innovation in all its forms and to develop and package it in such a way that it attracts the interest of industry and investors. In effect, we are helping to create the building blocks of Scotland’s life science economy.

And we should be in no doubt that in today’s global economy, our ability to compete will depend on our ability to innovate. As the pace of technological development accelerates, innovation is often all that stands between success and failure.
True innovation however, is difficult to come by. As anyone knows who watches Dragon’s Den, coming up with a new idea for a new product doesn’t always cut it with investors or consumers. Innovation in modern medicine is particularly challenging. The more we learn about the biology of the human body, the more we learn how little we know when it comes to curing some of our most troubling diseases.
Ground breaking research these days requires a multidisciplinary approach and modern biomedical scientists come in all shapes and sizes; physicists, chemists, medicinal chemists, biochemists, geneticists, clinicians, surgeons, biologists and mathematicians to name but a few. Curing many of the – as yet – untreatable diseases will require new approaches and multiple inputs.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple sums this up perfectly: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things”.
However, creativity is not just about differences – the chemistry has to be right for the magic to happen. The working environment must enable and encourage cross-fertilisation between different disciplines. Cross-functional teams must be built around projects, rather than having a series of silos where information merely gets handed on once their part of the job is done.

Creativity happens in the coffee bar during a conversation between two people who see the world differently. Kevin Dunbar, Professor at the University of Maryland, found this when he observed scientists. The vast majority of their breakthroughs didn’t happen in the laboratory, they happened when they were in cafes with other researchers. I witnessed this in the mid-nineties when visiting a rapidly growing biotechnology company on the east coast of the United States of America. I happened to drop by on a Friday afternoon and was surprised to find all the scientists in the canteen drinking beer and eating popcorn instead of ‘working’. When I enquired about the rational, the CEO informed me that these Friday afternoon ‘events’ ranked amongst the company’s most productive sessions (although I’m not sure what Health and Safety would make of it twenty years on!).

So in a world where innovation is critical and we are all busy, it is too easy to reach repeatedly for the similar. If we want to innovate, we need difference, and if we want difference to trigger creativity, we need the right chemistry.

About six years ago the University of Edinburgh joined forces with Scottish Enterprise and NHS Lothian to form the Edinburgh BioQuarter and create the right sort of chemistry to fuel innovation. The vision was one of a shared campus, with scientists, industrialists and clinicians from different disciplines united around a common vision of improving public health. Access to state-of-the-art research facilities was key, with multiple academic research institutes packed full of world class researchers and technologies, a medical school, hospitals (the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, soon to be joined by the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children), and industry working cheek by jowl, creating a vibrant community with a common overarching aim.

A critical element in delivering this vision was to assemble a team of industrialists to work hand in glove with Edinburgh University’s College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and NHS Lothian to act as a catalyst. Subsequently the BioQuarter Commercialisation Team was born, pulling in experienced executives from international biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, venture capital funds, and contract research organisations. Its aims were to foster deeper links with industry through collaborative research, to create new companies based on Edinburgh’s research base, and to encourage an entrepreneurial culture amongst researchers.

As part of its role, every year the Team runs an Innovation Competition, challenging staff and post graduate students from the University and staff from NHS Lothian to share their ideas for the improvement of human or animal health, with cash prizes as well as support to start the journey of turning their concept into a commercial reality.

Since its inception in 2011, the Competition has received around 150 entries with prizes worth about £90,000 being awarded to over thirty winners.

The entry period for the 2014 Innovation Competition is currently underway, with a closing date of 4 April, and the Team is keen to receive even more innovative entries.

The 2013 first prize winners were a team of innovative anaesthetists from the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh who scooped their prize for their potentially ground-breaking invention to help intubate patients during surgery.

Three companies have also been created from winning entries over the past few years, including Pharmatics Limited, a data analysis company for drug development and Cytomos Limited, creators of the world’s first desk-top cell sorting device for use in medical research and diagnostics.

Our ultimate vision for BioQuarter is to build an ecosystem where innovation and commercialisation go hand in hand. Our Innovation Competition is an important part of this vision by encouraging scientists to not just come up with new ideas, but to think about how these could be applied to improve healthcare in the real world.

Projects such as these will help Scotland remain at the forefront of medical science. By stimulating the right environment for innovation, we can help ensure and that discoveries made by Scottish scientists will continue to deliver benefits to patients around the world.

So if you’ve got an idea for how your can make life better for patients, why not try your luck and enter the Innovation Competition. You could win £15,000 to help commercialise your idea. Entries close on 4 April so get your ideas in now.

Further details can be found at: