EDINBURGH, Scotland, March 29 (UPI) -- The Scottish government is betting some of its economic chips on the biotech industry -- bets potentially risky based on the volatility of this sector, but also wagers that might pay large dividends for the economy.
While always occupying a strong niche in the life sciences, courtesy of such famous academic centers as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee universities, regional economic planners at the Scottish Enterprise government agency set a goal three years ago of markedly increasing the regional biotechnology sector.
This was the formal start of a big and ongoing push toward organizing government, academia and private sector into a large-scale joint effort that set the ambitious target of doubling the number of Scottish biotechnology companies within four years. According to Scottish Enterprise, its growth targets are on track with the biotech sector increasing on average by 30 percent per year.
Along with this growth payoff has been the global publicity received in the last several years by Edinburgh's Roslin Institute and scientist Ian Wilmut for cloning "Dolly" the sheep. And the more recent notice gained by other Scottish biotechs, such as Dundee-based Cyclacel, which is in development for what could be a line of blockbuster cancer drugs.
"Everybody knows Scotland for hills (the Highlands), tartan, whiskey and Loch Ness. Our job is to increase awareness that we are also a tech and knowledge economy," said Mike Rymaruk, a senior staffer with Scottish Enterprise, during a recent informational junket for journalists hosted by the agency.
The Scottish push toward a tech economy -- with biotech being one of the most recent emphasis -- comes in the wake of a decline by Scotland's large-scale manufacturing and heavy-industry economy which began a steep descent in the years after World War II.
The decades of the '40s and '50s saw a marked drop in the shipbuilding business, which at one point Scotland dominated by building half the world's tonnage. And from the '70s through to the '80s, the coal industry significantly dropped.
Unemployment skyrocketed in the region and the United Kingdom began to look for other economic alternatives. With the political devolution of Scotland from England, ongoing efforts toward changing the Scottish economy were fully inherited by regional agencies such as Scottish Enterprise.
Some tech expansion plans have stalled, such as the semiconductor sector in Scotland, which like elsewhere in the world is languishing unprofitably after the bottom dropped out of microchip manufacturing last year.
But the biotech sector in Scotland is not languishing and seems poised to boom.
Studies and plans for Scotland's biotech sector came to organized fruition in 1999 with the Scottish Enterprise agency's Framework for Action Plan, which has been updated each year and acts as an annual report. Scottish Enterprise fully expects that by 2003 the agency will have reached its goal of doubling the number of regional biotech companies.
Peter Lennox -- Scottish Enterprise's network director for biotechnology -- views the sector has now reaching a point where it can begin to further capitalize on its successes.
"There is a growing momentum of success, opportunity and growth in biotechnology here in Scotland," Lennox said. "I believe the (biotech) community has extremely valuable knowledge that it can share with the rest of the world to the benefit of mankind. It is our duty to forge new international relationships to realize this potential."
The spectrum of work ranges from drug development for treatments of everything from various cancers, to defeating the rising incidence of diabetes worldwide, and creating powerful new anti-infectives to fight bacteria. And on the forestry front, researchers at the University of Abertay are working to combat Dutch elm disease, which has destroyed millions of trees.
Biotech industry analysts note that three areas of expertise stand out Scotland: clinical research; biomanufacturing; and bioinformatics, which is the growing science of matching biotechnology with computer science.
Scottish Enterprise's biotechnology network group works with the region's biotechnology community -- including private sector and academe -- assisting with access to money to pay for startups and expanding new businesses, helping to plan and implement business development, and working to improve management skills among biotech staff.
Recent development activities by the Scottish Enterprise agency include the ongoing construction of Scotland's first dedicated biomanufacturing sector in the town of Midlothian, near Edinburgh. The Biocampus, as it is known, is a $100 million flagship initiative that will have space for as many as 10 firms and 1,000 biotech workers.
The first company to move onto the 40-acre Biocampus will be PPL Therapeutics, which is building a state-of-the-art facility on the site to enable the company to "commercialize its treatment for cystic fibrosis," according to Scottish Enterprise.
Some facts and figures from the Scottish biotech sector, provided by the Scottish government:
-- More than 430 organizations are involved the biotech industry, including support, logistics and related companies.
-- Of the nearly 90 companies working solely in biotech, around 30 of these companies have been created since the kickoff of Scottish Enterprise's biotech development plan.
In addition to such international scientific stars as Professor David Lane, who won the Paul Ehrlich Award for his discovery of the p53 cancer suppressor gene; and Wilmut of "Dolly" fame; is Philip Cohen of the University of Dundee, one of the world's top researchers in cell signaling.
Also, despite representing less than 10 percent of the U.K.'s population, Scotland produces 31 percent of the U.K.'s genetic scientists.
Two of the top five European biotech investments last year were in Scottish companies -- $47 million for Dundee based Cyclacel and $43 million GBP for the Strakan Group Limited.
In addition to Cyclacel and Strakan, a short list of Scotland's top biotech companies include: the Axis Shield Group, which does disease testing for infectious and cardiovascular diseases; PPL Therapeutics (a spinoff from the Roslin Institute) specializing in transgenic technology (gene modification); Organon, doing research and treatment for human diseases; Serologicals, a company working in blood typing reagents; Biovations, specializing in treatment for human diseases; PanTherix, performing screening for drug compounds, and Remedios, specializing in environmental applications for biosensor technology
Scottish Enterprise's Lennox likes to compare the country's biotech sector -- and biotech around the world -- to the building of something large and sublime.
"It's like the story of the man who comes to a bricklayer who says he is building a wall, and then comes upon another bricklayer who says he is building a room, and then comes upon a third bricklayer who says he is building a cathedral -- this is how we should view biotech, as building a cathedral," Lennox said.
It is the hope of Lennox and other Scottish government economic planners that Scotland's part of the worldwide biotech "cathedral" will prove a forward looking plan that will payoff for years to come as this sector gets set to potentially burgeon around the world.