By Kristy Dorsey

Hailing from the most westerly point on the island of Great Britain, Janet Downie spent her childhood years helping her father on the croft in Ardnamurchan. As a child, during lambing season she would watch as her dad dissected the dead lambs and tutored her on how to identify what was wrong with the animals.

During that time, having been around animals all her life, she wanted to one day become a veterinarian. In the end, she would up studying biological sciences at Napier University, a path that led to her current role as chief executive of rapidly-expanding gene therapy manufacturer RoslinCT.

The company is preparing to open a new additional facility at Edinburgh BioQuarter that will more than double its capacity to produce cell and gene therapies. This will take it to commercial scale, creating more than 50 new jobs.

However, Ms Downie is already looking beyond that: “The challenge we have got is that we can’t grow fast enough. This field is exploding, with a lot of money going into companies around the world that are developing cell and gene therapies.”

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Those companies are RoslinCT’s clients, and though commercial confidentiality prohibits Ms Downie from naming them, she assures that they include leading biotech and life sciences companies from the US, the UK and Europe. Products include treatments being tested for diseases such as strokes, blood disorders and macular degeneration.

The new facility, she says, marks the start of a “new era” for RoslinCT.

“Cell and gene therapy manufacturers, with the potential to bring breakthrough treatments to patients globally, are making tremendous advances and delivering significant growth,” she says. “Investors globally are certainly taking notice of the sector and we continue to be very ambitious and focused on capturing future significant growth.”

RoslinCT has itself been on the receiving end of some of that investor interest, but for the time being it remains owned by the University of Edinburgh and the Roslin Foundation.

Currently employing 80 people, the business was spun out of Roslin Cells in 2015. Roslin Cells was once part of the world-famous Roslin Institute, where the cloning of Dolly the Sheep led to the eventual flotation of one of Scotland’s pioneering biotechnology companies, PPL Therapeutics.

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After graduating from Napier in 1994, Ms Downie joined Inveresk Research where she spent six years as a contract researcher in pre-clinical safety testing.

From there she went to PPL, which at that time was taking its lead AAT treatment for cystic fibrosis into Stage III clinical trials. But PPL struggled to get to commercialisation, and was forced to sell off its assets and shut down in 2003. Ms Downie then joined Charles River Laboratories, where she spent three years before spotting an ad in the newspaper for a quality control manager to join Roslin Cells.

At that time, Roslin Cells was a team of three people and a lab producing pluripotent stem cells, which can give rise to every cell type in the body. However, demand for these types of cells was still relatively low, leaving the firm to rely on grant-funded work until the market caught up. Now, however, it’s a far different story: “I almost don’t want to limit ourselves,” Ms Downie says, “because we know there is the pipeline there in terms of demand.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

For business – Bellagio, Lake Como. We were part of an academic collaboration many years ago and the annual meetings were held there. For leisure, I really enjoyed Gozo, Malta.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I was brought up on a croft and always wanted to be a vet. I love animals and being around them.

What was your biggest break in business?

Creating RoslinCT and being able to specialise in cell and gene therapies. I’ve been really lucky over the years and won business that has enabled the company growth.

What was your worst moment in business?

There have been a few! About five years ago, before I took over as CEO, seeing the business struggle financially was tough.

Who do you most admire and why?

My dad. He is patient, a great problem solver, and quietly determined. From his influence he taught me peace of mind, emotional resilience and how to never give up. These qualities are critical to survival in business.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I am currently reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. My taste in music is a bit diverse – Sia, Maroon 5 and I have a Graeme Mitchell and his Scottish Dance Band CD in the car stereo.