Under One Roof, Part 5: Biotech in BC

At a time when many companies in British Columbia (BC) are suffering through downsizing and layoffs, the BC biotech industry is showing itself to be a source of economic strength. BC is now the 16th largest biotech community in North America and is poised to become the second largest in Canada. So, the greatest challenge the industry faces in our province is not survival but how to manage rapid growth and create an industry that is viable for the long term.

There are approximately 90 biotech companies in BC, employing more than 3300 people. Areas of research include forestry, aquaculture, agriculture, and the environment. The industry, however, is primarily dominated by the health care sector. Almost 60% of companies--with a collective worth of CA$310 million--are working on biopharmaceutical and biomedical applications . Although the biotech industry on Vancouver Island is growing and ag-biotech is big in the Okanagan, Vancouver and the Lower Mainland continue to be the industry's BC core.

Pharmaceutical companies dominate the landscape in BC because of their close ties to the province's universities, in particular to the University of British Columbia (UBC). Almost 70% of all biotech companies in BC are spin-offs from university research.

"Since the inception of the University-Industry Liaison Office [UILO] in 1984, UBC has spun off 91 companies, while raising more than CA$1.3 billion from private investors," says Paul Stinson, executive director of BC Biotech, an organization created 10 years ago to promote and aid the development of biotechnology in BC. Stinson says that UILO helps scientists figure out whether their research has commercial potential and guides them as they turn their ideas into products.

The provincial government has also been a part of this success. Since 1991, the government has funded BC Biotech to the tune of CA$2.5 million, allowing the industry association to support early-stage development of biotech companies and, thereby, play an integral role in putting biotech in BC on the international map. The government also created the Science Council of BC to help administer many government-funded programs to promote applied research and development in British Columbia. Other initiatives such as the Knowledge Development Fund help to support infrastructure development in universities or teaching hospitals doing research by matching federal contributions from programs such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

But other companies managed to take their ideas from the lab to the marketplace even before the advent of government support. One example is QLT Inc., now BC's leading biotech company. QLT was created by four academics in 1982 and has become a world leader in photodynamic therapy. In April 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the production of Visudyne, a QTL-produced photosensitizer used in the treatment of macular degeneration.

Having faced the challenges of their own unfamiliarity with the business world and the reticence of investors to risk money on a knowledge-based product, QLT now provides a template for how to create a successful biotech company in BC. And the company seems comfortable with its role as industry leader. According to its president and chief executive officer (CEO), Julia Levy, "the success of QLT has made it a very useful role model for other companies starting now. A lot of us from QLT act as mentors for some of the younger companies." This type of collegiality has created a healthy business environment and may be one reason behind the steady increase in the number of BC biotech companies at all levels of development.

One company that is currently experiencing rapid growth is Inex Pharmaceuticals Corp. In the last 3 years, Inex has grown from 50 to 150 employees and should top 200 in 2002. This dramatic expansion is fueled by the excitement surrounding the company's Transmembrane Carrier System, a technology that aims to treat cancer by delivering therapeutic compounds through the bloodstream to tumor sites. The product is now entering pivotal phase II and phase III clinical testing.

According to David Main, Inex president and CEO, the move from research to product delivery has meant facing many of the challenges that come with rapid growth, including a lack of qualified senior employees. "The big challenge we've had is to add all the disciplines that weren't here before to be a real pharmaceutical company: clinical research, regulatory affairs, and quality control." Although UBC, Simon Fraser University, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) can produce enough qualified technicians, the obstacle has come in finding people for the product development side of the business.

Main says that "this is where you need to have people who come from the pharmaceutical side, who've been there and done that, and since there are not a lot of companies in BC that have people with that experience, we've had to go elsewhere."

QLT's Levy also recognized that senior managers had to be obtained from abroad for her company to succeed. "The skill base for running a business doesn't exist in Canada. We don't have a [strong] pharmaceutical industry in this country, so when you're trying to get someone who has international experience, you have to recruit him or her from either Europe or the United States. Almost all of our senior management are non-Canadian, but all the second in command or the people coming up are Canadian, so we're acting as a school."

Also helping to create a qualified workforce are the future workers themselves. Recognizing that their education alone was not providing them with the experience needed to interact with the biotech sector, from both a skills and a networking perspective, three graduate students from UBC created the Student Biotechnology Network (SBN). This network allows students to develop an understanding for, and links to, the industry while they're still in school.

According to co-founding director Dave Oliver, a Ph.D. student in UBC's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, this mentorship approach is very useful. Those currently in the industry are invited to talk about "how they got into it and how they built their companies." Moreover, students are learning through these contacts that the biotech industry goes beyond science. This is why SBN is also encouraging interest in biotech in other departments.

"Computer scientists interested in bioinformatics, engineers very interested in biotech--they couldn't see how electrical engineering could relate to biotechnology, but there is a huge demand for those types of people," says Oliver. SBN hopes that by creating this network, a greater understanding of the industry will be fostered and students will be in a better position to quickly become a part of it.

Another indication of how relevant the biotech industry has become here is the recent joint creation by UBC and BCIT of a bachelor of science degree in biotechnology, which includes co-op work terms with biotech companies. The biotech industry is unique in its complexity, says Levy, who has been a longtime proponent of such a degree. "This bachelor's degree is preparing people for walking into a biotech lab and understanding a lot more about the industry than someone walking in with a degree in biochemistry or any of the specific disciplines. That makes a big difference."

Biotech companies already train future workers in-house and through internship programs (for example, through the Biotechnology Human Resource Council). Now, universities are joining them in providing trained scientists locally who can start full-time work at a biotech company and hit the ground running.

There's a real sense that the time has come for biotech in BC. Biotech is an international business, and BC is showing that it has many of the components it needs to be successful: world-class science, an adventurous business environment, and wonderful lifestyle opportunities. Students and CEOs share this feeling. "Because it's a new industry and BC is emerging as a very strong biotech base in the world, it's an exciting time to get involved in a small company and to grow with it," says Oliver. Levy concurs: " It's very exciting--biotech is going to be a major factor in the knowledge-based industries here. It's rapidly growing, and there are literally dozens of new companies."

* Christianne Wilhelmson, M.Sc., is a science communication and public relations consultant in Vancouver. Originally from Ontario, she was drawn to BC by the world-class science and by the chance to see flowers bloom in February.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

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

Top articles in Careers