Under One Roof: Atlantic R&D Clusters Take Off

C anada is in a strong position to capitalize on local research talent in the booming biosciences arena. In recent years, many biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have set up shop in regions with top research universities and government laboratories, such as Montreal, Toronto, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Halifax. These so-called innovation clusters provide a nexus of expertise that differs in each geographic location. In the coming weeks, Next Wave Canada will take a closer look at the development of bioscience clusters in these regions and their potential impact on the job market. We begin this series with a focus on the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia.

Imagine a place where hundreds of academic, industrial, and government scientists interact on a daily basis, sharing reagents, space, and ideas with one another in a vast collaborative enterprise. This vision is one that leading public and private sector institutions have for Nova Scotia, and it is already becoming a reality with the creation of the Life Sciences Research Village.

Converting the ideas and discoveries generated in the lab into product development, patents, and spin-off industries has long been a challenge. These days, however, strategic partnerships among government, industry, and research institutes are becoming more prevalent and are increasingly involved in knowledge sharing and job creation. The partnerships have been cemented because high-tech industries are attracted to the well-trained labor pool, access to leading-edge knowledge and specialized laboratories, and the capacity for brainstorming with academic and government researchers. Even more partnerships are likely to be generated in the future as federal and provincial governments realize the economic benefits of such clusters of expertise and begin to play an active role in attracting new industries with tax incentives, funding, and strategic development.

The National Research Council (NRC) has been experimenting with the development of community-based innovation clusters for several years, on the basis that they are vital to sustained economic growth in Canada. "Clustering and regional innovation initiatives are an important part of our overall strategy to promote innovation and wealth creation for the benefit of Canadians," says Arthur Carty, president of the NRC. "We feel NRC can bring a lot to the table: experience with technology transfer and clustering, world-class research expertise and R&D facilities, and a willingness to work closely with others in the community to put the pieces together. We're there as a partner--to bring others into the process and to act as a catalyst for action and growth," says Carty. The cluster model focuses on linking existing local strengths and opportunities in emerging sectors to the NRC's core R&D capacities, a strategy that has already met with success in Saskatoon's agricultural biotechnology sector and in Montreal's booming biopharmaceutical sector.

The development of R&D clusters in the Atlantic provinces is the latest example of the public and private sectors working together to overcome the knowledge transfer hurdle. The NRC has committed to spending up to $110 million over the next 5 years in Atlantic Canada to expand its existing facilities and develop new community innovation clusters. It's all part of the federal government's $300 million, 5-year Atlantic Canada Investment Partnership, which is intended to attract investments in new technology and research opportunities, support the development and retention of highly skilled workers, and foster globally competitive companies in the region. The main objectives of the cluster development are e-commerce technology in New Brunswick, ocean engineering in Newfoundland, and life sciences in Nova Scotia.

As a part of the NRC initiative, more than 80 representatives from the government, industry, medicine, academia, and business agreed to establish a nonprofit organization--the Life Sciences Development Association (LSDA)--that would guide life sciences development in Nova Scotia. The association was officially launched in May 2001. As an indication of their commitment to the concept, the majority of these stakeholders have chipped in with funding to help support the organization's mandate.

Nova Scotia is well positioned to host such an initiative. It has a well-educated workforce, growing employment opportunities, and tax incentives for manufacturing companies. And it is already home to more than 100 life science companies, with approximately 1500 employees, in the areas of genomics, bioinformatics, nutraceuticals, and telemedicine. "We are convinced that Halifax--with its strong R&D base and growing presence of high-tech activity--has what it takes to form a dynamic technology cluster," Carty tells Next Wave.

Parts of the relatively strong bioscience community in Nova Scotia have until now remained largely isolated from one another. The centerpiece of the LSDA's vision is the development of the world-class Life Sciences Research Village in Halifax. The Research Village is intended to put the area's science under a single roof, both virtually and physically, and to provide the infrastructure and support necessary to build a closer-knit life science community. The goal is to bring researchers, entrepreneurs, educators, technology specialists, and venture capitalists together in an environment that promotes collaboration, exchange of ideas and skilled workers, and sharing of physical resources such as lab space and equipment.

The first step along the road toward creating the Research Village is to expand research facilities in and around Halifax in an effort to foster collaborations among the area's many current research projects. Many of these projects are already under the wing of the LSDA, as are the Research Village's foundations, which include the Business Development Center at Dalhousie Medical School, Genome Atlantic, and the Brain Repair Center.

"In a sense, the Research Village exists now," says Thelma Costello, executive director of LSDA. "Our efforts are focusing on building on what we have, adding extra dimensions (both new physical space and an organizational framework that will provide coordinating mechanisms and collaborative opportunities), and understanding and establishing the supports that are necessary for commercialization outcomes," Costello explains.

Costello hopes that the Research Village will act as a magnet for top scientists from all over the world and result in spin-off companies that will create more jobs for scientists and technicians. It is likely that universities throughout the Atlantic provinces will benefit from such a venture, because many of the Research Village's research initiatives have the potential for Atlantic-wide partnerships, according to Costello.

Keeping up with the demand for highly skilled graduates will also present a challenge for academic institutions, and it will inevitably increase the level of attention paid to the life sciences in the entire region. William Mills, executive director of Nova Scotia's Biotechnology and Life Sciences Industry Association, BioNova, agrees that finding sufficient qualified workers to fill the jobs created by the Research Village will be difficult. "It is one of the critical issues facing biotech industries in Canada, especially at the senior research level but also throughout all levels, including regulatory affairs and management," says Mills. Mills believes that the main issue to be grappled with is high school students' awareness of job opportunities. "We need to create awareness among teachers and guidance counselors that there are rich and rewarding careers in biological sciences and biotechnology." BioNova has been working on human resources issues with the Biotechnology Human Resource Council. BioNova has also taken an active role in promoting the Aventis Biotech Challenge and related teacher workshops in Nova Scotia for the past 4 years--"the right level to be tackling the issue," according to Mills.

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