Lessons from Atlantic Canada’s biotech sector: Part one

By Ainslie Pierrynoswki (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow) 

In this two part series, I’ll examine several of the key factors behind the biotechnology sector’s success in Atlantic Canada—and what lessons they hold for other industries in the region.

In Atlantic Canada, biotechnology is booming. The term biotechnology refers to products or processes created using living organisms or biological systems. In the case of Atlantic Canada, the region boasts more than 100 bioscience companies and 25 research organizations, which generate over $300 million per year in private sector revenues. At a time when many communities and industries in the region face continued economic challenges, what lessons can Atlantic Canada’s entrepreneurs draw from the biotechnology sector?

Bridge the gap between research and commercialization

Innovation is not a mere buzzword. Industries such as digital technology, biotechnology, and automated transportation systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated and profitable. As this report from the Council of Canadian Academies notes, countries which fail to develop new ideas, processes, and technologies in their industrial, scientific, and technological sectors “risk becoming unable to participate in world-leading research and equally unable to reap its eventual social and economic benefits.” Although Canada’s universities and research organizations have a strong output, the country’s overall investment in research and development is sorely lacking compared to other developed countries and emerging economies, such as China and India. Further, Canada often struggles to translate research and development into profitable products and services.

Atlantic Canada’s biotechnology sector, however, provides a prime example of how companies can bridge the gap between research and commercialization. Biotechnology firms across the region have drawn on Atlantic Canada’s 17 universities and the specialized research institutes therein. Halifax-based biotechnology firm Immunovaccine, Inc., for instance, started out as a partnership between entrepreneur Brian Lowe and then-Dean of Science at Dalhousie Richard Kimmins.

As a matter of fact, Atlantic Canada is home to Natural Products Canada, one of only two biotechnology firms in the country to be designated Centres for Excellence in Commercialization and Research. The company maintains multiple partnerships with research organizations, as well as technology and commercialization experts, in Atlantic Canada and beyond.

In the words of PEI BioAlliance CEO Rory Franics, “It’s not enough just to do the research. There’s a lot of discipline and a lot of understanding required to make this economically impactful.” Atlantic Canada’s biotechnology sector seems to have these qualities in spades. As a matter of fact, innovations in biotechnology are helping to revitalize traditional industries, as recounted below:

Build on—and innovate—existing industries

A number of biotechnology firms in the region are injecting innovation into existing industries such as forestry, fishery, and agriculture. For example, Maritime Innovation uses analytics and scientific data regarding tree genomics to help the forestry sector grow larger and stronger trees. Moreover, Seagrave noted that similar data analysis programs in the fisheries sector have the potential to make the fish processing industry in Atlantic Canada more efficient and competitive. Given Atlantic Canada’s continued reliance on traditional, seasonal industries, new companies and established industries need to follow the biotechnology industry’s lead and develop a symbiotic relationship—one which finds common ground between the old and the new. In essence, the biotechnology sector’s experiences shows how we can breathe new life into established industries facing economic challenges.

When it comes to the biotechnology sector’s success in Atlantic Canada, there remains much more to unpack. The second and final part of this brief series will delve into how biotechnology firms are forging international connections, pursuing partnerships, and facilitating economic diversification—and why all of that matters.

 

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