So much about our working and daily lives has changed that it is hard to recall what 'normal' is. With the economy recovering in many, if not all, parts and agile and enterprising businesses in growth mode, we look at the prospects for north east Scotland in 2022.
Jennifer Craw, chief executive of Opportunity North East (ONE), is upbeat, drawing on her team’s experience of working with more than 400 businesses across the region's key industries.
“There is a real sense of change gathering momentum as we start the year. This is a year of opportunity with the accelerated transition to a low-carbon economy the key economic driver as we learn to live with Covid-19," she explains.
“ONE is focusing action and investment on developing new tech businesses, leading sustainable food production and premium product development, commercialising life sciences innovation and rebuilding the visitor economy with a focus on our natural assets and environment. The North East Adventure Tourism project and Provenance Festival are two good examples of where we can build visitor numbers and revenue.”
The largest-ever entrepreneurial business growth support programme delivered by ONE is underway with spinout, start-up and scaling businesses engaged in sector-specific growth, digital transformation and innovation, sustainability and leadership activity.
Transformational industry projects led by ONE are at critical points. BioHub will open in the autumn, and construction will start on SeedPod. Both projects are co-funded by the UK Government and Scottish Government, via the Aberdeen City Regin Deal, and by ONE.
“Creating an attractive and supportive environment for entrepreneurs and founders, supporting start-ups through to full-scale maturity, are part of these projects and our broader action and investment. ONE is leading entrepreneurial programmes to create the right mindset for innovation-led sustainable business growth in the low-carbon economy,” said Jennifer.
“Energising this region's entrepreneurial spirit will make the most of our sector strengths and people, create new jobs and provide opportunities across the region.”
Sir Ian Wood, a driving force in the region's private sector-led economic development, sees the region’s focus on energy transition and economic diversification bearing fruit.
“The north east is at a crucial milestone in its economic transformation and, following a period of unprecedented challenges owing to the pandemic, there is reason for optimism as we begin a new year,” said Sir Ian, who chairs ONE and ETZ Ltd.
“With 70% of the successful bids within 100 miles of Aberdeen, the ScotWind leasing round represents a major step in our ambition to create a globally recognised integrated energy capability. Focused on delivering net-zero and developing a sustainable long-term industry base that delivers significant employment and growth for the region and Scotland.
“Beyond energy, the coming year will also see key milestones reached as we continue to diversify our region’s economy across our key sectors. We are particularly excited about the opening of BioHub and the continued progress of Seedpod. Two transformational projects that will catalyse further growth in our life sciences and food and drink sectors.”
Digital is changing every aspect of life and business. Tech companies are tackling the world’s most prominent climate, energy, and health challenges as we live through the fastest pace of change in history.
"The economy is opening up again, and the appetite for innovation, new ways of working, is accelerating. There is also a move towards purpose-driven working, especially among younger people looking to make a difference in what they do. Tech is attractive because of the opportunity to develop solutions that deliver social impact as well as financial return and take them to market quickly," says Grant Smith, chair of the digital sector board at ONE.
"The region has all the ingredients to grow its tech sector. There is a concentration of key industries, a wealth of expertise and talent, challenges that need digital solutions and increasing willingness to do things differently. The growing tech ecosystem, universities, better digital education, access to accelerators, expert support, and investors to turn ideas into start-ups and scale creates an attractive mix for innovators and founders. ONE is a catalyst for this. There has never been a better time to found a tech start-up in the north east.”
The region is synonymous with premium food and drink. Food and drink businesses have successfully responded to the rapidly-changing customer and market demands and consumer behaviour. The £2.2 billion annual turnover sector employs more than 22,000 people across manufacturing and production.
"We have exemplar businesses in the region leading the industry in sustainability, e-commerce, digital transformation and automation," says Stanley Morrice. He chairs the ONE food, drink and agriculture board and has leadership roles with Garrets International, Strachans and Van Hulle.
“The sector has adapted and innovated and come through the pandemic in overall good shape. Many businesses have grown and continue to invest in new products, market development and process innovation. There is optimism in the industry for 2022.
"It is a fast-changing sector, and sustainability is key to future success. ONE is working with businesses to help them embed low-carbon best practices in their operations and supply chains, from farm or fishery to fork. The region can be a leader in low-carbon premium production. Markets, customers, consumers and investors now prioritise sustainable businesses.”
A prime example is the Seafood Transformation Project that ONE leads with the processing industry. It aims to modernise the £700 million turnover sector through public and private investment in a five-year programme to deliver new capacity, automation and resource efficiency.
“We have a world-leading catching sector. This project will put our processing sector at the forefront of advanced food manufacturing in the UK - supporting businesses to add value to the premium fish and shellfish we land here, increase profitability and create new higher-value jobs,” said Stanley.
“Digitisation and automation are critical for the whole sector and right across supply chains for low-carbon productivity and overcoming labour shortages. They are also a massive threat because the early tech adopters will gain all the advantages if we do not do it.
“SeedPod will create a focal point for the industry. To drive digital transformation, focus on foods of the future innovation and insight-led product development, and accelerate the growth of early-stage businesses – drawing together the strands of business support we have developed at ONE over the past five years. It is exciting to look ahead to construction starting this year,” said Stanley.
Headwinds for the sector include global and national inflation impacting costs, disruption to logistics and supply chains, and evolving international trading arrangements.
"The quality of leadership in the sector is crucial. Today's environment demands leadership, over and above management. The ONE focus on leadership skills - including coaching, mentoring, peer networks and skills programmes - is supporting long-term business growth," added Stanley.
Aberdeen has a distinct high-value life sciences cluster with late-stage drug development companies and spinouts and start-ups. The industry is one of the fastest-growing parts of the economy. The UK is now ranked third globally for investment into biotech and healthtech.
Deborah O’Neil is CEO of the pioneering biotech firm NovaBiotics. She is vice-chair of the ONE life sciences sector board and BioAberdeen, formed to deliver BioHub. NovaBiotics is developing novel immune-based therapies for life-threatening and life-limiting diseases. It currently has a drug candidate in Phase 3 clinical trial for community-acquired pneumonia, including Covid-related infections.
“The pandemic put the health, social and economic impacts of life sciences centre stage. We have seen the real-time impact on health, wellbeing and the economy of developing vaccines and treatments faster than ever before. That’s very powerful and demonstrates the sector’s potential to change lives and generate significant returns on investment. We are building on that momentum,” explains Deborah.
“BioHub is the significant sector development for Aberdeen. It is an unprecedented investment. BioHub will provide facilities and space, specialist support and connections for scaling businesses and the spinouts and start-ups that ONE works with to commercialise research and innovation.
“It is an inspiring time to be a life sciences founder. Innovators increasingly have access to the talent, support and capital to create businesses. And the pipeline continues to grow with incubators, early-stage investors, and growth funds helping spinouts and start-ups build their products and grow at pace. BioHub will draw all these strands together in Aberdeen, build on five years of sector growth investment from ONE, and catalyse a new era of life sciences development,” said Deborah.
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