Under One Roof, Part 4: Biotech in the Prairies

When you think about Canadian strengths in terms of production and exports, agriculture and oil feature prominently. However, the provinces responsible for the bulk of these exports--Saskatchewan and Alberta--are rising to the forefront in another area of Canadian strength: biotech. So, if you can stand the cold winters, the prairies just might be the place where you land your next job in the biotech industry.

According to the Statistics Canada report Biotechnology Use and Development--1999 , Alberta is home to 28 of the 358 Canadian core biotech companies, and the industry employs approximately 574 people in that province. Saskatchewan has 16 biotech firms, which employ approximately 289 people. The biotech industry in the other prairie province of Manitoba is comparatively small, with only six companies. Yet based on its expertise in agriculture, Saskatchewan biotech generates over four times as much revenue as Alberta and leads Canada in terms of revenue based on the number of biotech firms.

This surprising statistic is due primarily to the fact that biotech in Saskatchewan is at a more advanced stage, with more companies having more products already in the marketplace. In the last few years, for example, more than half of Canadian biotechnology exports were agri-food-related products (mostly genetically modified canola, soybeans, and corn), and most originated in Saskatchewan, with health-care-related products (vaccines, diagnostics, and contract research services) making up the remainder of exports.


Saskatchewan is a leader in ag-biotech, not just in Canada, but globally. The province is one of the world's largest producers of agricultural products and has access to leading-edge research and development in biotech. The ag-biotech sector is expected to show strong growth--45% annually over the next decade--especially in veterinary drugs and vaccines, followed by transgenic produce, plant diagnostics, and animal feed. Apart from producing much of the world's genetically modified crops, Saskatchewan companies are also well recognized for producing and processing high-quality products in the area of nutraceuticals and functional foods. Nutraceuticals and functional foods represent one of the fastest growing markets in the developed world. The burgeoning world population (predicted to be 9.3 billion by 2050), changing consumer demand in third-world countries, the gradual depletion of prime agricultural land, the use of innovative technologies, and scientists who view plants as a source of industrial products as well as food all contribute to the good prospects for the ag-biotech industry, particularly in Canada.

The biotech industry in Saskatchewan is centered in Saskatoon and is made up of mostly small (less than 50 employees) and medium-sized (between 50 and 150 employees) companies. The province has fostered its expertise in ag-biotech largely through a coordinated provincial industry strategy, led by government and academic institutions. Federal and provincial government agencies such as the National Research Council's Plant Biotechnology Institute, Saskatchewan Research Council, Agriculture Canada Research Stations, and Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization have acted as catalysts in the development of the province's agriculture and food biotechnology industries. The government also supported the establishment of the industry association Ag-West Biotech Inc.

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in Saskatoon provides an abundance of scientific expertise, resources, tech-transfer capabilities, and infrastructure through the College of Agriculture and the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine. The university's technology transfer office, UST Inc., has helped churn out nine of the 33 spin-off companies from U of S research pursuits in the last 10 years, some of which have been biotech related. Branko Peterman, president and CEO, says that U of S spin-offs generally have a survival rate of 85% and currently employ 1300 people. "For Saskatchewan, whose economy is based on agriculture, the creation of spin-offs is very important and so is the role of tech transfer," says Peterman. "In most cases the spin-offs are high-tech companies that offer diversity to Saskatchewan and keep young graduates in the province."

The University of Saskatchewan also tries to offer programs in a full range of scientific disciplines that are integral to the local biotech industry, according to Judy Hume of Ag-West Biotech. "The Virtual College of Biotechnology [VCB] aims to bridge the gaps between business, law, sociology, and natural sciences by offering multidisciplinary training to program participants," says Hume. The VCB targets primarily undergraduate students and offers courses that deal with the key scientific, social, economic, commercial, and ethical issues associated with the development and growth of the biotechnology industry. The Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, Kelsey, also provides a strong local supply of technicians and managers for the biotech industry.

Adjacent to the University of Saskatchewan is a joint university-government venture, Innovation Place Research Park. The research park is a center of excellence for ag-biotech, providing facilities and services for about 200 biotech and IT companies. Many of the tenants carry out research and development in ag-biotech, and they include some of the largest agricultural companies in the world, such as Monsanto Canada and Dow AgroSciences. The high level of R&D activity means that many U of S graduates are finding work with companies in the research park, according to Peterman.


The biotechnology industry in Alberta is predominantly focused on the health and agriculture sectors. The province's growing biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry is based on strong academic research and spin-off companies. "Alberta has two of the top medical schools in the country, and it also has excellent infrastructure in the area of funding for health research. This means that we have great potential for spin-offs," says Myka Osinchuk, executive director of BioAlberta, the province's industry association. Osinchuk was referring to the fact that the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research has invested almost $600 million in health research over the last 20 years.

The University of Calgary (U of C) is recognized for its outstanding research capabilities in biotechnology. Several research groups at U of C currently conduct investigations in areas ranging from diabetes research to cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, and gastro-intestinal disease. The U of C tech transfer office, UTI, has played a vital role in matching scientists with the right entrepreneurs and supporting the development of successful startup companies such as SemBioSys Inc. SemBioSys is the brainchild of U of C researcher Maurice Moloney, a professor in the department of biological sciences. "The U of C is a fairly entrepreneurial place, and the concept of incubating a spin-out like ours has been well supported by senior administration," says Moloney. SemBioSys is a molecular farming company focused on manufacturing of high-value recombinant protein products derived from plants. The founding technology was the result of work funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Alberta Agriculture Research Institute from 1990 to 1993. The company started in 1995 with one employee and a few contract workers, and it has since grown to a staff of 56, 35 of whom are involved directly in R&D. The company continues to collaborate with several of the university's top labs in medicine and biosciences. Moloney is the chief scientific officer; however, he still maintains ties with the U of C and even has a small group of researchers and graduate students there. "It is a good arrangement," says Moloney, "as there is still lots of fundamental science to be done: work that will provide the next generation of plant biotechnology, and even other new companies in western Canada."

Moloney claims that there is a great deal of solidarity in the small biotech community and that recent provincial government initiatives will go a long way toward helping build the industry in Alberta. From his own personal standpoint, Moloney is committed to demonstrating that the high-quality graduates Canada produces can help make the biotech industry in Canada as competitive as the more traditional centers, such as the Bay Area and Massachusetts, even if on a smaller scale.

Osinchuk adds that some of biotechnology's greatest opportunities for graduates lie in the convergence of industries. "Alberta's great strengths in energy, agriculture, health, and information technology translate into significant opportunities for emerging areas of biotechnology," says Osinchuk. "So the career potential for people from science, medicine, engineering, computing science, and agriculture is tremendous."

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