Under One Roof, Part 3: Ontario's Biotech Community

As Henry Friesen, chair of Genome Canada, stated at the recent BioFuture 2001 meeting in Toronto, "there is no doubt that we have entered the decade of biotechnology." Hot on the heels of the information technology (IT) and telecommunications knowledge sectors, it seems that biotechnology deserves such praise. The biotech industry in Canada currently boasts revenues of almost $2 billion -- up 72% in the last 2 years, according to Friesen. And this figure is expected to climb more than 100% in the next 2 years, firmly establishing Canadian biotech as a solid growth sector and significant generator of employment. The future looks especially bright for Ontario's bioscience clusters, as they lead the way in fostering ingenuity and invention.

At the Heart of It

Of the estimated 360 Canadian biotech companies that have sprung up in the last 7 years, almost a third are based in Ontario and are concentrated in areas such as genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, and agri-food technologies. The biotech industry accounts for approximately 3000 of the more than 33,000 people employed in the bioscience industry (biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices) in that province.

The recent wave of government support for entrepreneurs is one reason why biotechnology companies are finding Ontario a good place to do business. Several new sources of provincial funding and R&D tax incentives introduced in the last 2 years have provided a much-needed boost to the biotech industry. The result is that Ontario now invests more than any other province in biomedical research, with approximately $150 million available annually through a variety of government sources (see sidebar below).

Ontario's Commitments

Ontario Innovation Trust--A $750 million fund created in 1999 to improve research infrastructure at universities, colleges, hospitals, and research institutions. In addition to responding to direct proposals, the trust is responsible for Ontario's initiative to match funding from the federal Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund--A $550 million,10-year initiative established in 1997 to promote research excellence by increasing the R&D capacity of Ontario universities and other research institutions. The fund encourages public and private sector partnerships, particularly in biotech incubators.

Research Performance Fund--A $30 million fund announced in 2000 to help support the indirect costs associated with research, such as heating, electrical power, technology transfer offices, libraries, and computer networks.

Premier's Research Excellence Awards--An $85 million initiative established in 1998, the awards program helps Ontario's world-class researchers attract talented people to their research teams.

In another move to support the industry, the Harris government announced the Biotechnology Commercialization Centre Fund (BCCF) in May 1999. The fund provides $20 million over 4 years to create biotechnology commercialization centres in London, Toronto, and most recently in Ottawa. The BCCF centres are intended to nurture new biotech companies emerging from public research institutes and the private sector. At the same time, they provide strategic funding and infrastructure to ensure that research discoveries made in the province actually stay in the province, from the bench to the marketplace. Start-up companies share office space and laboratory facilities, as well as administrative resources and managerial/financial services, allowing them to focus their resources and energies on developing products and technologies. The government estimates that the centres will create approximately 300 new biotechnology firms and 30,000 direct and indirect jobs over the next 10 years. "The biotechnology industry is poised for unprecedented opportunities to develop and grow", says Ontario's Minister for Energy, Science and Technology, Jim Wilson. "In making Ontario's biotechnology industry one of the largest in North America, thousands of new highly skilled, well paid jobs will be created, generating millions of dollars of economic activity for local economies."

Regional Hot Spots

A number of biotechnology clusters are emerging in several academic centres in Ontario, including London, Guelph, Kingston, Ottawa, and Hamilton. But the largest cluster is in Toronto.


Toronto is the centre of the country's biotech industry, in terms of both the number of patents generated there and the total number of companies -- about 100 public and privately held companies. The 13 major teaching hospitals and the strong academic science base have without a doubt influenced the health care focus of Toronto's biotech industry. In the last decade, Toronto companies held 61% of U.S. patents granted to Canadian biotech firms, with the companies Aventis Pasteur, NPS Allelix Pharmaceuticals, Hemosol, Visible Genetics, and Spectral Diagnostics ranking in Canada's top five.

As if that were not enough, the city is about to benefit from a new venture. In fall 2000, the BCCF awarded $9 million to create a biotech incubator in Toronto--a long-overdue initiative in the city that boasts the fourth-largest concentration of medical, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical activity in North America. The Toronto Biotechnology Commercialization Centre (TBCC) is guiding the development of a biotech incubator that will serve the local research community and boost competitiveness in the biotechnology industry. TBCC is a consortium composed of the University of Toronto, five of its affiliated research hospitals, and private-sector research companies that have been working with the City of Toronto and the private sector to match the provincial funding required to develop and finance the incubator project. Although it is still in the early planning stages, the preliminary proposal is for a 100,000 square foot incubator facility that will house up to 70 new biotech companies, create over 2000 jobs, and attract more than $600 million in investment.


Although the Ottawa region is considered to be Canada's IT centre, biotechnology's potential for generating sustained economic growth is slowly being recognized in that community. In the Ottawa area, approximately 3200 people work in medical and biomedical research and in agri-food technology development, and about 100 biotechnology and medical device companies are located in the city. Ottawa's biotech companies tend to have a bioinformatics bias, benefiting from the local resources in the IT industry.

In October of this year, the first of two Ottawa Biotechnology Incubation Centre (OBIC) sites was officially opened. The Ottawa Life Sciences Council, local universities and affiliated research institutes, the City of Ottawa, and the provincial government have teamed up with the private sector to create the 18,000-square-foot-facility at the Greenbelt Research Farm. The facility will house up to eight start-up companies that focus on advanced agri-food technologies and bio-product sciences. The second facility will be located in the Ottawa Life Sciences Technology Park and is still in the planning stages. But with a $5.4 million commitment from the BCCF, the government hopes that the two OBIC sites will generate more than 170 jobs and about 25 companies in the next 5 years.


Once the home of insulin pioneer Frederick Banting, London now houses 13 hospitals and research institutions, 12 biotech companies, 17 medical device companies, and 15 bioinformatics companies. Even so, there is continued development in the London biotechnology sector. The Agriculture Canada/Food Research Centre is expanding to include a technology transfer office in 2001. In addition, the John P. Robarts Research Institute and the Lawson Health Research Institute are both expanding their research laboratory space in the coming months. This expansion will provide more jobs for scientists and technicians and improve the institutes' solid track record of producing successful spin-off companies, such as Diabetogen, Viron Therapeutics, Plantigen, and Fralex. Construction has also begun on the London Biotechnology Incubator (LBI), which is expected to be open for business in June 2002. Funded with $10 million in matching grants from the BCCF and the local council, the LBI is expected to house about 15 start-up companies, employing approximately 150 people.

Heather Pilot, of the London Economic Development Corporation, thinks that this development is great news for the London area.: She estimates that over the next 2 to 3 years, about 350 scientists, technicians, and business development people will be hired. "Companies particularly need people with management experience," says Pilot.

Local and provincial government support has been essential for the industry's development, according to Susan Crowley, executive director of the London Biotechnology Commercialization Centre (LBCC), the group overseeing the LBI project. "Prior to the announcement of funding support from the province and the City of London, the community had lost two biotechnology companies to other areas in Canada that offered the infrastructure as well as some critical mass," Crowley explains. "London can now start to compete more effectively with other municipalities and across borders to attract leading-edge life sciences companies." But the industry is not out of the woods yet, says Crowley: Although the government's incubator initiative supports its vision of Ontario becoming one of the top three biotechnology business regions in North America (behind California and New England), "by no means does such infrastructure development guarantee success."


Although the city has not received the same level of government support as its counterparts, Kingston is nevertheless home to an emerging and diverse community of early-stage biotech companies. The local biotech community is beginning to flourish, largely because of local university research spin-offs and the supply of a highly skilled workforce from nearby Queen's University and St. Lawrence College.

Kingston-based companies such as Millenium Biologix, Performance Plants, Cytochroma, and Molecular Mining Corporation have each found a niche market in the biotech world, and the list of early-stage companies is growing. Although Parteq Innovations, the technology transfer arm of Queen's University, continues to churn out start-up companies, Parteq's president, John Malloy, admits that keeping companies in Kingston is a problem. "Sometimes it's hard to recruit the right type of management for biotech companies here," he says, adding that he hopes the anticipated growth in the local industry will hopefully make it easier to recruit and retain management expertise.

A Step in the Right Direction

It could be said that the biggest evolution in Ontario's science and technology in recent years has been the avant-garde policies introduced by the provincial government. And with the creation of the Ontario Science and Innovation Council (OSIC) in December 1999, the government is further demonstrating a broad interest in science and technology and a willingness to listen to stakeholders in academia and industry. OSIC's mandate is to advise the Ontario government on strategies to capture the potential benefits of new and emerging technologies and to encourage the government to act as a catalyst for emerging sectors such as biotechnology. Let's hope the government keeps listening.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers