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by William Peakin
15 October 2014
Life affirming

Life affirming

“When I went on site and met the people, it was clear that there was a great deal of passion for what they were doing,” says Dr Diane Harbison, “and you could really see the potential.” Harbison is the new managing director of BioCity Scotland, the bioscience incubator on the site of the former Merck Sharp & Dohnme (MSD) facility at Newhouse, on the M8, which closed in 2010.

The company acquired the site when its US parent company Merck & Co merged with Schering-Plough in November 2009. But after that deal was finalised, the facility was one of eight Merck said it would close as part of plans to advance the integration of research and development, manufacturing and business operations worldwide.

However, MSD ‘kept the lights on’ to preserve the site’s integrity and in 2012 gifted the facility to BioCity Scotland, a joint venture between BioCity Nottingham and Roslin BioCentre, to support drug discovery and development for bioscience, pharmaceutical, med tech and healthcare companies. “It was the opportunity to do something different,” says Harbison, the former head of business development at Edinburgh’s BioQuarter.

“Most of my career has been in pharmaceutical and academic business development, so the opportunity to be involved in business creation, was really exciting.”

Harbison has a BSc and a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow and an MBA from Henley Business School. She spent more than 10 years with Pfizer, joining its bioinformatics team, before moving to Pfizer’s global business development group.

She was responsible for the negotiation and alliance management of several major collaborations for Pfizer; including an agreement for Pfizer’s first stem cell therapy for the treatment of macular degeneration, with University College London for a product that today is close to entering clinical trials.

Under her leadership at BioQuarter, Harbison’s team successfully established collaborations for the University of Edinburgh’s academic researchers with many of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies. It included two deals with Glaxo Smith Kline’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) – a first for any university in the world – that have enabled early drug discovery programmes in acute pancreatitis and liver fibrosis. Strategic alliances were also created in other disease areas with other pharmaceutical companies such as Lilly, Biogen Idec and Astra Zeneca.

Since BioCity opened, it has attracted some of the most ambitious pharma-entrepreneurs. BioCity across the UK – there are three other sites – has become one of the largest bioscience incubators in Europe creating an international hub for entrepreneurial activity in life science, providing centres for a wide range of research, training, events and thought leadership at Newhouse as well as Nottingham where the concept was founded.

It is home to a broad range of companies from university spin-outs and entrepreneurial start-ups to established UK firms and international subsidiaries.

They include healthcare, medtech and biopharmaceutical companies at the cutting edge of oncology, new medicine discovery, regenerative medicine and stem cell biology. There are also companies providing high-value services to the life sciences sector, such as specialist instrument and service suppliers supporting work in human fertility, imaging and diagnostic development. One company is developing ‘intelligent indicators’ to improve food safety and decrease food waste.

The beauty of BioCity, says Harbison, is that it combines state-of-the-art facilities located near research-intensive universities with a variety of spin-outs and start-ups, all supported by a range of business advisers and services – as well as access to funding, drawing on angel investors, venture capital and UK and Scottish Government backing.

Harbison is looking forward to the next step in BioCity’s development; in July Chancellor George Osborne announced an £18m funding package for life sciences and a new business centre as part of the Glasgow and Clyde Valley City Deal. Part of that package will go towards setting up MediCity Scotland at BioCity.

“Major funding announced from Glasgow’s City Deal to establish MediCity Scotland will create a new med-tech incubator on the Newhouse site,” says Harbison, “providing a stimulating and supportive business creation environment for medtech innovation.  It complements our MediCity site in Nottingham and enhances what we can already offer prospective tenant companies.”

MediCity Scotland will address a need for a focal point for Scotland’s healthcare, diagnostics and med tech sector creating a critical mass of activity. It will bring together partners in academic institutions, including the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, the NHS, and large and small corporates. It will combine entrepreneurs, “frustrated healthcare users”, providers with unmet needs and technologies “in a melting pot of innovation and creativity”.

“It will replicate MediCity Nottingham, which we created in England in 2013, as a joint venture with Alliance Boots and which is already proving incredibly successful.

“The corporate partners provide the consumer insight and a route to market and the NHS partners provide healthcare solutions developed in house looking for a commercial outlet. The academic centres provide a source of technology expertise and access to high end equipment while the entrepreneurs seek to pull all these factors together into viable business opportunities.”

MediCity will provide an additional 11,500sq ft of space on the BioCity campus enabling the creation and growth of over 50 new healthcare businesses in Scotland over the next five years creating over 350 jobs as a result.

“BioCity Scotland has already achieved 50 per cent occupancy on site, which is ahead of what was predicted in our strategic plans. That had nothing to do with me! It’s a real testament to the team here. And I think MediCity is going to give the site yet another huge lift.

“We have a strong pipeline of new and growing life sciences companies considering locating to Newhouse.  Many of the companies already located at BioCity Scotland have attracted additional investment and are expanding rapidly. It is an exciting time to be joining the BioCity team.

“What we are trying to do now is create and grow innovation clusters at the site – the kind of culture you see in Silicon Valley when you get entrepreneurial people together,” says Harbison. “My vision is that from this incredibly strong foundation, we bring like-minded people and start-ups together to generate some really exciting products and growth companies – ultimately having a real impact on the Scottish economy.”

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