Canada is home to about 800 life science companies that employed nearly 30,000 highly skilled workers. Growth sectors include agri-biotechnolgy, biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, and contract services. Key clusters include Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, which is one of the fastest-growing life sciences clusters in North America.
Vancouver is well known for its cutting-edge research in oncology, genomics, infectious disease, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, HIV/AIDS, and cardiology. While many of the companies in this sector are small, some have become very successful through strategic partnerships with major international firms, such as Neuromed Pharmaceuticals' $500 million collaboration and license agreement with Merck & Co. to develop next-generation chronic pain drugs.
With over 600 private companies and 150 university and public research organizations, Greater Montreal is internationally recognized as a life sciences center that specializes in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and medical technologies. It's also home to the National Research Council's Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI). Recent discoveries at BRI include a biodegradable polymer that is stronger than steel and incredibly durable. Called nanocrystalline cellulose, this renewable and recyclable resource has the potential to enhance the strength and function of just about any manufactured product - even adhesive bandages and gauze. NRC has licensed this technology to Nova Scotia biotech firm Bio Vision Technology.
"We are interested in developing new bio-products that can replace or supplement petrochemical supplies," says Stephen Allen, vice president of technology for Bio Vision. "By replacing just 2 percent of the polymers that are now made from petrochemicals, companies can significantly reduce their carbon footprint."
Emerging life science/biomed clusters can be found in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Winnipeg is a leader in MRI research and other noninvasive surgical technologies. Much of this work is conducted at the NRC's Institute for Biodiagnostics, Canada's most advanced facility for magnetic resonance technologies. In Halifax, more than $100 million is invested in life science R&D every year. Local companies - such as MedMira Laboratories, which specializes in in-vitro diagnostics - are gaining national and international attention.
The Brain Repair Centre at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University - a multidisciplinary collaboration of more than 100 world-class researchers and physicians - is internationally known for its innovative treatment of Parkinson's disease.
Recent Halifax, Nova Scotia-based initiatives in the neuroscience area have attracted major multinational players such as Elekta Neuroscience, as well as start-up companies like Neurovox and Mindful Scientific, which developed the world's first clinical use of a neurosurgical simulator.
"The goal has always been to take research from the lab and use it to help patients," says Dr. Ryan D'Arcy, Mindful Scientific's scientific advisor at NRC. "Our research allows us to create technologies that can have an immediate impact on people's lives. Neuroscience is a Canadian strength and is getting stronger in its ability to translate that research into everyday improvements in healthcare."
With its abundance of farmland, it's no surprise Saskatchewan is home to almost one third of Canada's agricultural biotechnology industry, with more than 700 scientists working in 30 research centers across the province. Among these facilities is the Saskatoon Research Center, which conducts R&D targeting production of prairie crops, especially the global use of oilseeds as industrial crops. Research is showing these plants can be engineered to have higher resistance to cold, drought, salt stress, and disease.
Similar work is being conducted by Saskatchewan's Agriculture Development Fund (ADF), which funds innovative research in the agriculture and agri-food sectors. In 2011 the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture committed $14.5 million for 71 ADF research projects, including exploring the untapped potential of oilseeds as lubricants, bio-pesticides, fish feed, and components in jet fuel. Other projects focus on innovative bio-product processing technologies and sustainable farming systems and practices.
A Bright Future
The Canadian government will continue to support innovation across all its industries; this is especially true for life sciences, ICT, and energy, which are seen as powerful economic drivers that result in positive global change. This effort is led by the well-funded National Research Council, whose mission is to facilitate scientific discovery and commercialization of new technologies that improve quality of life. Moreover, realizing the importance of a creative, enabled private sector, the NRC is adapting its focus to include more collaboration with companies and research institutes to help identify economic opportunities and solve commercialization challenges.
"Our new direction aims to bring greater strategic and market focus to the research, technology development, and innovation work we do with industry and the rest of the public sector so that we can create greater short-term impact and contribute to Canada's long-term sustainable prosperity," comments Ian Potter, vice president of the Engineering Division at the National Research Council of Canada. "We are focused on results and targeting outcomes important to Canada and our clients, such as enhanced productivity, high-quality jobs, technology commercialization, and increased business expenditure on R&D."
To ensure success, Potter indicates Canada is adopting a market-driven approach that places a greater emphasis on engaging the private sector and public agencies and institutions.
"We are putting in place business models attuned to the private sector," he adds. "This allows us to address real industry issues such as increasing innovation capacity, reducing risk in early-stage technology development, and facilitating the development and deployment of innovative products, processes, and services for targeted markets."