By Hermione Wilson
There is a lot of buzz around the issue of resource management in Atlantic Canada these days. In the context of the life sciences sector in that region, it means mining the traditional industries and natural resources of the Atlantic provinces – aquaculture, agriculture and lumber, to name a few – for potential innovation.
“We are still a province of hewers of wood and drawers of water,” says Meaghan Seagrave, Executive Director of the New Brunswick bio cluster, BioNB. “We still live with our traditional industries; they are the basis of the province. Seventy-five per cent of our land mass is covered in trees, we have the cheapest arable agricultural land in North America and we still have significant fisheries.”
Seagrave believes that the future of the life sciences in New Brunswick lies in collaborations between the life sciences and the province’s traditional industries. “The future of that cross-sectoral pollination is what the feds are essentially calling cleantech,” she says. Seagrave points to examples of this cross-polination in innovations like replacing petroleum-based products with bioproducts found in industries like forestry, agriculture and aquaculture.
The New Brunswick life sciences sector encompasses a wide range of industries, she says. The industry works in a multitude of areas from bioenergy to pharmaceuticals. Fifty-five per cent of the BioNB member companies work in resource management, developing natural resources into energy, biochemicals, natural health products, and pharmaceuticals.
“Nova Scotia has got a focus around med tech, PEI and [the province’s life sciences cluster PEI BioAlliance] are more on the life sciences and natural health products side of things, and we do a little bit of everything, which makes us the ‘jack of all trades and master of none,’” Seagrave says. “Because we are the masters of none we utilize the expertise and the knowledge base within both PEI and Nova Scotia when we have companies that need that knowledge base, and they utilize us for pretty much everything else because our networks are very vast and very diverse.”
New Brunswick has 14 major research institutions outside of academia, institutions like the Huntsman Marine Science Centre, Northern Hardwood Research Institute, and the Coastal Research Institute, Seagrave says. The province has more research institutes and researchers per capita than anywhere else in Canada, she adds. Most of them are focused around the traditional industries of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, marine and aquaculture – all except the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton. In terms of commercializing pharmaceuticals, the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute is working toward cancer treatments and therapeutics, and one of the province’s biotech companies, Soricimed Biopharma, was recently granted orphan drug status by the FDA for its peptide SOR-C13 treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Then there are companies such as McCain’s Food and Cooke Aquaculture who would not necessarily consider themselves part of the bioscience sector. Seagrave refers to them as “non-core bioscience companies” and says she considers them all part of the ecosystem.
“McCain’s would consider themselves a global food company, but they actually develop and patent technologies around their waystreams and they do really novel food-based applications,” she says. “Cooke would consider themselves an aquaculture fish company, but they need to evolve their fish feeds, they need vaccines, they need to deal with energy solutions from a processing perspective, so there are all of these components and they either integrate them, development them, or purchase them.”
In the province of Nova Scotia, the life sciences sector is divided in to five key areas: medical technology, pharmaceuticals and vaccines, natural health products, digital health (involving the interplay between the digital community and classic life sciences), and bio products. Resource transformation comes into play yet again where bio products are concerned.
“You take a lobster shell, you pull the chitin out of it, then you can make some chitosan which is used as slow-release backbone for slow-release pharmaceuticals,” says BioNova Managing Director Scott Moffitt. “Instead of making dog food with lobster shells, you’re making something you can sell at $15,000 a kilo.”
Resource transformation is an area where Nova Scotia and New Brunswick overlap, he says. Under that broad umbrella, Nova Scotia leans toward the health technology space. “The majority of the companies that we have in Nova Scotia are actually falling into the health technology area,” Moffitt says. “That would be medical technology, pharmaceuticals and vaccines, natural health products, and digital health fits in there as well.”
Part of the reason for this is that Nova Scotia has research infrastructure that is historically focused on the health technology space. That research infrastructure includes the province’s extensive adult hospital network, the IWK Health Centre – “The only tier one pediatric system east of Quebec City,” Moffit says – and the Dalhousie University medical school, to name the major players.
The Nova Scotia life sciences sector has its sights set on emerging fields like natural products, digital health and bio products as key areas of future growth. For example, in the natural products space, Nova Scotia would like to take leftovers from the wild blueberry production process (the province is one of the largest producers of wild blueberries in the world) and extract bioactives that could be used for preventative treatments and antioxidants.
BioNova is currently in the process of developing a sector growth plan, which has so far identified a need for a human resources network and a capital investment network, Moffitt says. “We want to basically identify the investment community, the organizations and individuals who have some sort of an affinity for Atlantic Canada, so that there’s a bit more of a soft landing when a company from here goes and talks to an investor [outside of Canada] .”
In terms of retaining talent in the province, Moffitt says that the sector has put a lot of effort into ensuring recent graduates have plenty of job opportunities available to them, and that those who are educated in Nova Scotia stay in the province. There is also a need, he says, for the province to recruit experienced talent from abroad. “There are some skill gaps in this part of the world, and that’s primarily around senior-level executives with the industry experience that have the ability to take a company from Point A to Point B.”
Prince Edward Island
The focus of the PEI life sciences sector has long been on natural product chemistry and product development and commercialization, ever since the National Research Council (NRC) established the Institute of Nutrisciences and Health in Charlottetown in 2007, says Rory Francis, Executive Director of PEI BioAlliance. “That has continued to be an important area where we’ve grown our credibility as a cluster and is really a key part of how we have attracted and grown companies, attracted technologies and leadership to grow companies in that space,” he says.
That emphasis on natural product chemistry has applications in human health, cosmetic ingredients, functional food ingredients, natural health products green chemistry (such as natural products that replace petroleum-based actives), animal health and nutrition. The PEI life sciences sector offers contract manufacturing services and contract research capacity in these areas of application, through both public and private sector service providers. In the public sector are contract service providers like Atlantic Veterinary College, the NRC’s Charlottetown research facilities, the University of PEI, Holland College and the Bio Food Tech Centre. In the private sector there is BioVectra (known for its fermentation and chemical synthesis capacity), the Centre for Aquaculture Technologies, the Central Nervous System Contract Research Organization, and Diversified Metal Engineering (which manufactures specialized equipment for supercritical extraction equipment, fermentation and downstream processing).
These research institutions and companies are “an important support and service provider to businesses in our cluster and it’s also a magnet that attracts other businesses in to be able to get access to the infrastructure and the talent that those organizations represent,” Francis says.
“We try to focus on areas, technologies and markets where the time to market is three or five years,” he says. “Drug development is not a big part of what we do here, partially because the timeline to get products to market for companies is 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars, so we’ve focused on shorter time to market segments.”
The PEI BioAlliance cluster has about 53 member companies ranging from large organizations – like BioVectra, Sekisui and Elanco – to small start-ups just getting off the ground, Francis says. BioVectra, Sekisui and Elanco all began as start-ups in PEI and were subsequently purchased by multinationals, he says. “Those multinationals have continued to invest here and grow the businesses, so that seems to be our model,” Francis says. “We develop these early stage companies and work with them, help them grow, and even if they do get purchased by a bigger player at some point, the important thing from an economic development standpoint is that those new inquisitors continue to invest in those businesses and grow them here.” So far, he says, that model has been successful.
A Strategy for Growth
The goals of the Atlantic Canada life sciences sector dovetail neatly with the Atlantic Growth Strategy, an initiative of the federal government and four Atlantic provinces that is designed to focus resources and effort on the region’s economy. Five pillars were identified as areas of focus by the Atlantic Growth Strategy, one of which is particularly relevant to the life sciences: innovation. Under the pillar of innovation, the initiative further identifies the areas of “bioscience, aquaculture, ocean technology and renewable energy” as hubs of future growth.
What that looks like, practically, is that the government is doing things like working on a new immigration pilot program that will help companies access skilled labour, and by encouraging SMEs to “innovate, pursue commercialization R&D and generate new value-added opportunities,” says Wade Aucoin, Director General of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. “One of the key ways we’re doing that, under the Atlantic Growth Strategy, is by the Accelerated Growth Service in the region. It brings in various federal agencies and the provincial government together to really provide the full range of services so that companies in the region that really want to grow are able to get access to those services more easily.”