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Agenda: Our fledgling life sciences need a major injection of fresh funding

The proposed takeover of a UK business by a US rival rarely travels beyond the business pages but one such bid dominates the news headlines.

The US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has set its sights on becoming a world leader in its field and, to achieve this, it is looking to acquire UK-based AstraZeneca. From a purely business perspective, the deal makes sense. Last year, Pfizer's revenues were around $52 billion, almost $20bn less than the world's largest pharmaceutical firm, Johnson & Johnson.

By acquiring AstraZeneca, which made $26 billion last year, a new market leading global giant would be created. A number of high-profile critics have voiced serious concerns over the proposed £63bn takeover.

Politicians fear it could lead to specialised British jobs and many back-office functions being shipped overseas. But one of the biggest concerns comes from a group of leading scientists who argue such a move could have dire consequences for science, damaging research and development and hitting the UK's rapidly growing biomedical and life sciences industries.

At first glance, Scotland would not be hit hard by this deal. Both firms have a significant presence in the UK but much of their staffing is focused in the southern half of England.

However, the indirect effect of such a major shift in the industry could have far reaching consequences for a Scottish life sciences industry that is still in its infancy but is playing an increasingly important role in our economic growth.

Scotland's life sciences sector is wide ranging, encompassing everything from pharmaceutical companies to scientific research firms and specialist medical suppliers. As the industry grows in importance, it becomes increasingly difficult to measure exactly how many people in Scotland it directly and indirectly employs.

At present, it's believed there are around 600 Scottish organisations employing more than 32,000 people and adding more than £3bn a year to the economy.

An industry that was previously niche and highly specialised is now regarded as a key sector by the Scottish Government. Scotland has the second largest hub of life sciences firms in the UK and one of the most prominent in Europe. A strategy is under way with ambitious goals of doubling the size of the sector by 2020.

One of the major challenges facing that far reaching vision is funding. Many smaller firms that are highly specialised and could play a vital role in its future are struggling to access investment.

As a result, many are hesitant to focus on innovative new products and research, opting instead for safer, less complex areas of work.

Government support in the form of tax breaks and incentives is providing a valuable boost for new firms entering the sector. But, without private-sector funding to back this strategy up, we could face a serious growth hurdle.

Options such as hybrid funding, which helps to fill in private gaps, are helping. But, in order to encourage investors who are fuelling growth in other areas such as information and communications technology and renewable energy, a collaborative approach is needed, with industry leaders, politicians and related business sectors all working together to champion the talent and skill base Scotland has to offer.

The proposed takeover of AstraZeneca demonstrates how much of a global industry life sciences have become. International firms are now competing to dominate a multi-billion pound growth industry. The results of these power shifts could impact on Scotland and it makes sense that politicians look into the pros and cons of such deals.

While such manoeuvres take place, Scotland's grassroots life science firms are finding their feet and eyeing their own growth. We need to look at how we can support them and become a world leader in one of the future's most important industries.

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