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Overview of Edinburgh BioQuarter’s history, achievements and potential

In this interview with Edinburgh BioQuarter’s Programme Director, Anna Stamp, gives  a passionate overview of BioQuarter’s history, achievements and potential to Breakthrough – the official magazine of the United Kingdom Science Park Association.

Co-location and data are the twin catalysts of the future for many business sectors, but none more so than in life sciences and health innovation.

The benefits of siting research, academics, clinical, entrepreneurs, commercial spinouts and start-ups, alongside manufacturing space and data centres, are both self-evident and significant.

The concept is already evolving in the UK and overseas, but Edinburgh BioQuarter aims to take the model to a new level, by creating a new £1 billion health innovation district around its existing healthcare hub which spans almost 200 acres.

The Golden Triangle is regularly cited as the UK’s most successful example of co-location in life sciences, but its ability to expand deeper into the historic hearts of Oxford or Cambridge, or further into London’s dense urban environment, is becoming increasingly constrained.

“When you start trying to move academics, researchers and staff around multiple urban sites, you encounter serious connectivity issues, but we don’t have that issue here,” says Stamp.

“Here, you can walk across BioQuarter from the research space to the clinical buildings and the commercial innovation accommodation in 15 minutes – and we’re also barely three miles from Edinburgh’s wonderful city centre”.

With 25 years in architecture to underpin her observations, Stamp believes BioQuarter is now ideally positioned to take advantage of the spatial and strategic advantages it holds over its peers.

“We already have an established community of more than 8,000 people who work and study here, and an international reputation for the quality of our medical teaching and healthcare delivery in life sciences,” she says.

“Opened in 2012, the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine is a genuinely world-class facility. Together with the new IRR South building completed this year and, with the adjacent IRR North building, they will have capacity for more than 1,000 staff and research students.

“When the new Usher Building comes on stream next spring adjacent to these, it will enhance Edinburgh’s reputation as a major European data centre and accelerate our ability to deliver data-driven innovation.

“Within Usher there will be more than 900 researchers, healthcare providers, industry partners and data specialists right in the heart of BioQuarter.”

Stamp praises the ability of the city’s decision-makers to identify a site of such scale and potential during the 1990s, long before co-location was considered crucial.

Edinburgh’s Little France district hadn’t previously been noted for anything other than its historic name and as a sprawling agricultural location.

“The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh had been founded in 1729 and was Scotland’s oldest voluntary hospital, so it was a bold move by the city forefathers to move it out of the centre, and to build the new hospital here, with 800 beds, and at a cost of more than £180m,” she recalls.

“Since it opened in 2003, other research institutes, specialist medical centres and clinics moved here, until we achieved critical mass. When our first commercial lab and office space was delivered in 2012, it made us a destination for start-ups, spinouts and established life science companies.”

However, Stamp doesn’t allow her commitment to BioQuarter, or her passionate belief in its huge potential, to dilute her objectivity.

“Over the last 30 years, we’ve attracted in the region of £600 million in investment, funding and grant support, but to reach the next level, we will require finance of a different order and over a relatively short-term,” she admits.

Infrastructure is a major challenge, as with around 50% of the site yet undeveloped, it doesn’t have the core utility supplies and other energy provision required for a regeneration project on this scale.

Observers of the sector reckon BioQuarter would need around £100 million for those elements alone, and infrastructure of a different kind is a much larger obstacle to be overcome.

“At the moment, we are effectively a major science park with clinical functions, so we also have the limitations of an established science park,” says Stamp.

“The individual buildings are fantastic, but many of the early ones have been built in silos, the spaces between the buildings aren’t what they should be, and we have very few amenities on site, so we have no shops, nurseries, gyms or cafes, and very limited catering provision. To attract and retain the best in class we need to put place building at the heart of our decision making.”

BioQuarter is governed by four of Scotland’s most prominent public organisations: the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Enterprise, the City of Edinburgh Council and NHS Lothian.

“Our partners realised that the current trajectory had to change if we were to transition into an innovation cluster and a life sciences centre of excellence on a global scale,” recalls Stamp.

“They were equally aware that the pace of development of the site needed to accelerate, alongside huge investment into the public realm and amenities.

“The price tag was around £1 billion, so way beyond the financial capabilities of the public sector. The decision was made to create a public-private partnership and a procurement exercise launched for this was launched in 2022.”

“We have a vision which is very ambitious, so the procurement process must be meticulous, and our assessment of potential partners must be absolutely rigorous. It’s equally important to find a company who shares both our cultural values and our strategic mindset.”

The new partnership will be established in 2024, and Stamp says it’s very much worth the wait.

Among BioQuarter’s notable assets is the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, funded by author JK Rowling in memory of her mother, who died of complications related to multiple sclerosis.

Its flagship research project, FutureMS, revealed in August that more than half the 440 people identified with the condition across Scotland, had joined the study shortly after diagnosis to map their personal journeys to assist its pioneering work.

The clinic has research teams based in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Inverness, as well as Edinburgh, to ensure that it spans the country.

“JK Rowling was a huge part of the strategy behind the clinic, and even for someone of her wealth, it was a huge commitment to donate £10 million so it could be created to help tackle the ghastly condition which ended her mother’s life,” says Stamp.

BioQuarter’s vision for its future evolution is likewise not lacking in scientific ambition or personal desire.

“In the short-term, it’s about place-making and creating a critical mass of people. To achieve this we plan new residential accommodation to ensure that the shops, cafes, nurseries and other amenities are sustainable, and capable of supporting a community of around 8,000 people 24/7,” says Stamp.

“Our ultimate vision is to become a global destination for life science innovation, based around our quadruple helix of research functions (academic, clinical, commercial and healthcare).

“However, it’s not just about regenerating BioQuarter, it’s about inclusive growth whilst ensuring that our neighbouring communities are also transformed in terms of education, schools, jobs and skills, so that they can come with us on our journey.

“Our ultimate goal is to become a new health innovation district – a mixed-use neighbourhood supporting a community of more than 20,000 people.

“I like to think we’re visionaries, but with a strong sense of realism. It’s not just about ‘opportunities’ for our future partner, but about sharing a tangible vision with them and seeing a defined pathway, whilst also accepting the challenges which will lie ahead.”

BioQuarter’s public sector partners have equally demanding ambitions for both it and the wider city, as Stamp explains.

“Edinburgh aims to become Europe’s data capital. Scotland has excellent access to health data going back for decades which will be a powerful lure for start-ups and growing companies looking to operate in life sciences and healthcare,” she says.

“Our new innovation space will start to come forward soon, to attract new companies, accommodate existing enterprises looking to expand and spinouts from the university, and other academic and research institutions.

“Creating an ecosystem needs a broad range of health innovation and commercial work in parallel, because we’re in such a competitive sector, competing not just with other UK locations but internationally.

“Nurturing a new generation of talent, as well as attracting existing talent, is also key, and our new private sector partner will be crucial because we need the buildings for accommodation and research and clinical trials to be master-planned and delivered.”

Stamps believes the easiest element in this ‘grand project’ will be to attract researchers, academics, entrepreneurs and investors to Little France.

As someone who returned to the city of their university studies in 2005, she well understands its appeal, whether for architecture, art, culture, creativity or lifestyle reasons.

“It is a great place to live, always in the top places where people outside the city wish to live, and I am confident that no-one will need persuading to come here.”

The interview was published in Issue 20 (Autumn 2023) Breakthrough Magazine Page 46 – 48.