The locations that come to mind when discussing the UK’s strong life sciences sector are London, Cambridge and Oxford; in fact, these three cities are often collectively called the ‘golden triangle’. Despite housing around half the number of people of London alone, the country of Scotland is another leading UK life science cluster. Scottish Enterprise noted that after the ‘golden triangle’, Scotland generated more start-ups than any other region between 2012 and 2016.

Recent figures from the Scottish Government show the country’s strength in life sciences is showing no sign of slowing down. Between 2010 and 2017, the sector’s turnover grew 90%, meaning the sector is on track to reach its strategic target of £8bn by 2025.

Of the 670 companies and 41,000 people working across Scottish life sciences, 250 of those companies and 9,000 of those individuals operate in the medical technology sub-sector. Industrial strategy group Life Sciences Scotland describes the country’s med tech industry as “vibrant” and “thriving” and notes it has enjoyed 8% growth over the past decade.

Life Sciences Scotland attributes this success to the “a globally recognised research community, an outstanding reputation for innovation, a collaborative clinical base and a highly skilled and flexible workforce.”

Scotland’s research and academic excellence, as well as the country’s innovative and collaborative culture, is exemplified in a med tech initiative from four of Scotland leading universities – Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Robert Gordon.

Supported by the Advancing Manufacturing Challenge Fund (AMCF), these four universities have teamed up to create the Medical Device Manufacturing Centre (MDMC) as a hub for to support Scottish small and medium sized companies (SMEs), which dominate this sub-sector, with the development, manufacturing and commercialisation of medical devices.

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The need for a med tech hub in Scotland

Located on Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus, the MDMC was motivated by significant unmet clinical and industrial needs in med tech and the perspective that these could be resolved by properly leveraging the strong engineering expertise within Scottish academia.

MDMC business development executive Robin Shields explains the lead academics in the MDMC – its director professor Duncan Hand and manager professor Marc Desmulliez – have significant experience working with med tech companies from an engineering perspective. However, they decided to formalise their existing working relationships with colleagues in other universities to create a hub to help SMEs translate innovative ideas into practical and commercially viable devices.

“This is really a partnership of the willing and able responding to a specific opportunity that aligns with their interest and expertise for supporting business and impacting society,” notes Shields.

The reason why Heriot-Watt was chosen as the location for this hub is that Hand and Desmulliez, the main proponents of the MDMC, are both professors at Heriot-Watt, explains Shields.

In addition, the MDMC was founded by £3.7m in research funding. Half of this came from European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which was managed by Scottish Enterprise, and the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. This funding was then cash-matched by the four universities, explains Shields, with Heriot-Watt providing the lion’s share.

Heriot-Watt is also a serendipitous location because in 2022 the UK’s National Robotarium will open on the University’s Edinburgh campus. This will be a world-leading centre for robotics and artificial intelligence, and help further support moving research from laboratory to market.

A one-stop shop for Scottish SMEs

Uniting this med tech expertise into one site at Heriot-Watt de-risks innovation for the business community, which is particularly important for SMEs, explains Shield.

At a newly renovated lab, Scottish SMEs will have free of charge access to expert engineers and technicians, as well as fit for purpose equipment, they would not have in house, says Shields. They will be able to use the equipment to “road test ideas” for off-the-shelf medical devices, or to assess the suitability of certain equipment in advance of purchasing it.

Examples of the types of equipment and techniques the MDMC can support SMEs are laser cutting and welding, 3D printing and injection moulding. Therefore, the MDMC is able to support an extremely broad spectrum of medical devices, which “reflects the breadth of the sector” in Scotland, notes Shields.

Taking the example of 3D printing, the MDMC will be providing its SMEs customers with access to capabilities, including low temperature cofired ceramic manufacturing process, stencil printing technology and low-cost entry injection moulding process, according to a webinar by Desmulliez.

Beyond manufacturing support

Importantly, the MDMC can offer Scottish SMEs more than just manufacturing expertise and technical support. The MDMC will also provide business development and regulatory guidance to SMEs operating in Scotland. The hub will do this through workshops, webinars and training, as well as through its advisory group of med tech experts from both the private and public sectors, according to Shields.

On top of its advisory board, Shields explains, the MDMC is networked broadly into AMCF community, as well as other med tech experts and initiatives throughout the rest of the UK.

“We are happy to have a conversation with anyone and devise a support pathway within the MDMC,” notes Shields. “Or where we can’t support in house, we will signpost or network to other sources of expertise.” The latter includes for developing bespoke devices, which are not part of the MDMC’s free of charge offering that centres around off-the-shelf devices.

Shields notes that there has been SME interest in the MDMC already despite the Covid-19 pandemic slowing down the renovation of the lab, meaning commissioning cannot begin until the first quarter of 2021.

Although the ERDF funding only lasts until the end of 2022, the long-term intention for the MDMC is for it to grow in both scope and geography, including externally from Scotland, according to Shields. He notes there has been promising interest from outside Scotland with both UK and international parties signing up for MDMC virtual webinars and workshops.