In the first of an occasional series of features about SSAC members, Russell Greig talks about his career in the pharmaceutical industry and what Scotland can learn from his experience overseas.
In between a meeting at the Scottish Government's HQ in Edinburgh and a teleconference back at his hotel, Dr Russell Greig has just enough time for a chat about innovation and motivation.
What switched him onto science in the first place?
“I remember going to the butcher’s and getting lungs and stomachs to dissect at home. I just got very interested in living things and what made things living. I was fascinated by biology from day one.”
Having spent some 30 years in North America, this amiable bioscientist and successful businessman is clear about why he's decided to reconnect with his homeland and join the Scottish Science Advisory Council.
"If you're Scottish, you're always Scottish," he explains, "and I think whether you're inside or outside Scotland, most Scottish people feel the same way: they would still like the country to do well, and you want to give something back."
He's had a long journey back here, leaving Scotland at 17 to do both his undergraduate and PhD degrees at the University of Manchester, and subsequently moving to the US as a Fulbright scholar. After two years in Canada he joined the pharmaceutical industry on the east coast of the US, and has spent the last three decades in various roles for GlaxoSmithKline, from R&D to running international markets with 17,000 staff and sales of $5 billion, before retiring to start his own company in 2010.
It's a career he's found both demanding and rewarding, and he's very open about why he's stayed in the industry so long.
“The prime motivation for, I would say, 99% of people in pharmaceutical R&D is this very genuine and noble one, and that is to discover drugs to improve the quality of life of human society.
"No one person makes a drug, it requires hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and I think to be part of that team gives you tremendous job satisfaction. The failure rate might be 90 or 95%, but the satisfaction of making a substantial contribution to the discovery and development of a drug is incredible. The people who join the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry, the R&D people, want to make a drug that has huge impact, that treats disease and improves the lives of millions of people.”
Scotland's research base is world leading, but are there lessons we can learn for translating this more effectively into innovation? Greig smiles.
"You know, everyone wants to replicate Silicon Valley, everyone's looking for the ‘secret sauce’. But 40 years of trying around the globe tells us that the Silicon Valley is not readily transportable. The magic ingredient for Scotland in life sciences is yet to be defined. We have to develop our own. There’s tremendous science being done in Scotland, that’s not the issue, the issue is that Silicon Valley has done so well at creating a culture whereby outstanding research can be transformed into early stage start-up companies, attract private funding, recruit high quality scientists, create jobs, create value, and create wealth.
“Scotland’s got two or three of those ingredients, like many other countries. What it doesn’t have is this culture that encourages, trains, educates people to take their ideas and commercialise them. Now even when you’ve got that, there’s still a ‘secret sauce’ that’s required.”
How does that ‘commercialisation culture’ manifest itself in the US?
“Look at Boston, for example. There are two or three square miles in Boston where, if you go into a Starbucks or a Prêt or the equivalent, there’s probably two or three Nobel prize winners in there, a couple of CEOs and venture capitalists and you can get all this advice from them for free. There’s a community there that is experienced and very willing to help young entrepreneurs, and really proud that they can help someone set up a successful company for free, so the community is aligned in helping young people to lead successful businesses. It’s part of the culture, it’s become ingrained in the culture.”
There's a message here as well for academia; Greig believes strongly that publicly-funded researchers have a wider social responsibility.
"It’s public money, so it's not ‘noble’ to spend money to further knowledge, they [scientists in receipt of public grants] need constantly to think about how their work can create jobs, and create wealth. And in the current financial climate I think there's an increasing obligation to 'give something back'."
That's not all. More needs to be done, he thinks, to develop our young people, to encourage them to train in Scotland and to develop more of an entrepreneurial edge.
"I do believe that there's a waste of intellectual capital when so many young Scots leave the country. We train them from birth, and then they leave Scotland armed with great qualifications. Where's the return on that investment?"
The irony here of course is that this is exactly what Greig himself did as a teenager. But he believes that by instilling more of an entrepreneurial spirit in our young we'll create a culture that's ultimately more supportive of research-based start-ups, and will encourage more young scientists to see a bright future in Scotland.
"Whether at primary or secondary school we need to realise that entrepreneurship is about life skills, not just business skills. One of my colleagues on the SSAC, Prof Ian Underwood, has a great phrase that really gets to the heart of the issue: Do we educate people to become employees or employers?At the moment I think it's the former, and I think this really encapsulates the challenge we have, because we need both employees and employers. It’s a challenge for every country, not just Scotland. The bottom line is that governments don'tdirectly create wealth: entrepreneurs and businesses do. We have to encourage our schools to help kids learn about creating and running businesses."
Finally, does he see Scotland’s contemporary science strengths recognised overseas? Or do those abroad still have a traditional focus of tartan and whisky when they think of Scotland?
"I think Scotland's perceived very well overseas. Bagpipes and so on play a useful role; all that traditional stuff is benevolent. But what's more important is that there's highly credible science coming out of Scotland. Scotland's scientists are viewed as well trained and hard working, that Calvinist tradition, you know? The medical schools and other sciences have a great reputation. So I think overall the Scottish 'brand' is vigorous, particularly in science.
“I do not think scientists need to be stellar business people, but they need to appreciate what the discipline contributes to a supportive milieu like in the US, which takes 20-30 years to develop. Of course the weather doesn't help here,” he laughs, “but Scotland's a great country, there are exciting things happening here, particularly in the life sciences, my own bias of course, which are acknowledged around the world. I'm still very proud to be Scottish, and I'd like to see the country progress further in this increasingly competitive world."