Industrial biotechnology driving sustainable change

Patrick Wiggins

This year will provide a real focus on an industrial sector which is set to revolutionise how some of Scotland’s key business sectors operate and perform in the decades to come.

Industrial Biotechnology may not be a phrase that is yet on everyone’s lips – but it is certainly one that is becoming better used and understood within key sectors such as life sciences, chemical sciences and engineering.


This year sees the recently established Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) hold its second annual conference, and in October Europe’s largest Industrial Bio-Economy conference, EFIB, comes to Scotland.

Still in its infancy, this enabling technology creates sustainability and transformation in manufacturing processes across a wide range of businesses. It uses biological substances, systems and processes to produce materials, chemicals and energy. Industries are increasingly looking to biotechnology to improve the manufacture of products to achieve a number of aims, such as reduced carbon footprint; improved recyclability; better use of sustainable raw materials; and reduced reliance on heavy and precious metals as catalysts.

In short, Industrial Biotechnology, or IB, is seen as vital enough to warrant its own National Plan, published last year by the Scottish Government. The National Plan sets out some key targets for Industrial Biotechnology – to grow related turnover to £900m by 2025. It currently sits at around £230m. There are more than 50 companies operating in the sector.

Scotland already benefits from a very significant chemical sciences sector, and life sciences is seeing strong growth with further ambitious targets set. Engineering is also a sector that is a focus for Government.

As well as Scotland’s rich store of sustainable natural resources, the country also sets itself apart through the quality of output from its academic researchers, which has seen some very successful businesses and business clusters spin out in recent years.

The debate on developing our knowledge-based economy has revolved around how to turn our world-leading research base into jobs through developing our manufacturing industry. To do that, we need to see ever closer co-operation and working, and IBioIC provides a gateway to 14 universities and higher education institutions, and Scotland’s researchers are among the most productive in the world as measured by the number of publications and citations.

So how do we get from our current situation to hitting that target or better? The question will certainly exercise minds in 2016 and beyond. The sector has already recognised that developing strong links and collaborative working between business, research institutions and academia will be a key driver in developing knowledge.

If collaboration is a key, then at Irvine Bay we are well placed to play a positive role. i3 is our innovation and industry park at Irvine which includes an Enterprise Area with a focus on life and chemical sciences and engineering. There is a significant history and tradition in the sector in the area. Alfred Nobel made his fortune on the coast in North Ayrshire, and we have a number of global companies operating in our area including GlaxoSmithKline, UPM, and several others. So we have the skills, particularly in manufacturing. We also bring high quality commercial property, business incentives, and importantly a robust physical, digital and transport infrastructure.

In delivering over the past few years we have assisted the creation of hundreds of jobs, seen more than £100 million of capital investment from the private sector, and created or refurbished more than 200,000 sq ft of business space within i3.

These high value, research-based and highly skilled sectors are the kind of knowledge economy drivers which the Scottish and UK Governments want to see underpin the nation’s earning and employment prospects going forward.

Since the Enterprise Area was announced in 2012, 400 new jobs have been created at i3, but this could just be the tip of the iceberg. We are committed to seeing even more significant growth in jobs and inward investment as the project matures. i3, Irvine’s Enterprise area is ideally placed to contribute to the current push to developing manufacturing in the engineering, life and chemical sciences sectors and increase the opportunities for jobs in Scotland.

Over the past three years, life and chemical sciences companies in Scotland have already committed almost £1bn of investment towards expanding their manufacturing facilities. In Irvine, GlaxoSmithKline has invested around £100 million in their plant since 2012. The company plays an important anchoring role at i3, as they have valuable infrastructure which they are willing to discuss sharing with incoming companies – potentially saving these companies big investment.

Irvine already has an established chemical and life sciences community. The Enterprise Area provides the right environment for this community to grow and develop. A number of sites and properties have facilities and incentives that are well focused for these sectors. For example, new build facilities at Annickbank Innovation Campus are attracting attention from the life sciences sector and the Strategic Investment Campus provides the largest flat serviced development site in the north of the UK. High capacity infrastructure is already in place.

As a location for inward investors, Irvine i3 has a competitive advantage. Tax incentives are available for companies that choose to relocate here. Some of the benefits are specific to life sciences companies, others are relevant to any relocating business but might be especially relevant to companies with high initial capital outlay, for example life and chemical sciences companies, data centres or high value engineering.

As part of the Glasgow BioCorridor and with nearby teaching hospitals and universities, Irvine is closely connected to the hub of life and chemical sciences development in central Scotland. Road and rail infrastructure is excellent.

Scotland is already home to one of the most sizeable life and chemical sciences clusters in Europe. The new strategy for the two sectors together promotes manufacturing, encourages commercialisation and supports companies to scale up, creating real opportunity for Industrial Biotechnology. GlaxoSmithKline, for example, is already working very closely with IBioIC.

Scotland has an enviable reputation as a leader in life and chemical sciences. To realise the potential for our economy and create more jobs, sustainable manufacturing is key and this new National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology is an important step forward in coordinating all the different interests to ensure success.

The political will is there; the manufacturing skills exist; the physical and connectivity infrastructure is excellent; the sector expertise and history is superb. Now we need to work together to create the high value jobs in manufacturing - and Irvine could play a leading role.