Optimizing Canada’s life sciences industry is a source of perennial angst. Proposed solutions have included attracting international venture capitalists, recruiting experienced high-priced U.S. CEO’s and Board of Directors, establishing dual U.S. company locations, enhancing tax credits, personal tax breaks and nudging federal granting funds towards commercialization.
Now we have a taste of success, with companies like AbCellera, Zymeworks and STEMCELL building and growing in Canada for the long-run. To foster more of these stories of accomplishment, we feel we need to provide a nurturing environment for start-ups, including mentorship and incubators.
In the past few years, several mentoring initiatives have been launched, including Creative Destructive Lab which now operates five Canadian locations, OBIO’s Capital Access Advisory Program (CAAP), Edmonton-based Innovation Masterminds (imYEG), and the Canadian Technology Accelerators (CTA), run out of Boston and San Francisco. These initiatives are specifically designed to help companies build and raise funds.
Incubators are also an important resource for start-ups and come in many different flavours. Some offer free space, some charge rent; some accept only on-strategy applicants, while others have time-limited cohorts and include mentorship and financial support. Governments of all levels and academic institutes have also been willing partners in the incubator world as it makes sense for regions that want to stimulate the economic potential of knowledge-based industries. This support has ranged from donating space to providing funding for infrastructure, staffing and equipment.
Some examples of incubators from across the country are below.
- Newfoundland: The Canadian government and Memorial University came together to found the Bounce Health Innovation and co-working space in 2018.
- Alberta: A unique partnership was forged between the city of Calgary, the University of Calgary, and the governments of Alberta and Canada to repurpose former industry labs to form the Life Sciences Innovation Hub which offers shared equipment and lab space. Opening its doors in 2019, the site is built to host 20-40 life sciences companies.
- Ontario: At McMaster University the Innovation Factory and Synapse Lifesciences Consortium work together to support life science start-ups in the region.
- Quebec: Montreal has also seen some exciting incubator models. Concordia University’s District 3 Innovation Centre downtown was launched mid-pandemic to serve very early start-ups and local innovators. Nearby the TransMedTech Institute provides a nurturing hands-on environment for medtech start-up companies. Closer to the airport, the adMare BioInnovations (formerly NeoMed) is located in a purpose-built pharmaceutical building gifted by AstraZeneca, and is filled with start-ups and contract research organizations coexisting in a symbiotic relationship.
- British Columbia: In BC there are many incubator programs. To note a few – Vancouver’s entrepreneurship@UBC provides a HATCH Accelerator Program with a 12+ month mentorship for new companies which have been formed by business and science students. The Praxis Spinal Cord Institute’s SCI Incubate program offers a virtual incubator for global companies tackling spinal cord injury and the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering has creatively started Canada smallest and mightiest incubator (2 companies) inside its walls.
- Prince Edward Island: This province has reaped the benefits of its investment in “housing” new companies in the Canada-wide virtual incubator Emergence specializing in the bioscience and food sectors.
Johnson & Johnson Innovation itself is also in the incubator business, recently celebrating JLABS @ Toronto’s 5th anniversary. It is one of the only corporate incubators with a site in Canada designed to house early-stage life science companies. Support from the province and local universities helped launch the site which provides laboratories, expertise, education and resources to a total of 88 companies across the pharmaceutical, medical devices and consumer sectors.
- JLABS @ Toronto companies have cumulatively hired 605 full-time and 244 part-time employees creating jobs in the Canadian ecosystem
- 59% of JLABS @ Toronto residents have advanced their R&D stage while within JLABS
- $1.9B dollars in funding and deals have been raised by Toronto residents
- JLABS @ Toronto held 358 events with over 26,000 attendees in 13+ cities across Canada
A perfect example of the “Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS effect” is Immune Biosolutions. This novel antibody discovery company already had a site in Sherbrooke, Quebec yet wanted to also join JLABS @ Toronto. As one of the site’s inaugural residents, they kept dual locations and leveraged Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s mentorship, industry connections and resources. This culminated in an alliance with Janssen Biotech Inc.
The above examples are only a small list of the life sciences incubators coast-to-coast in Canada. In whatever form they exist, the facilities provide young companies with much needed exposure, mentorship, investor and business contacts, and a community for collaboration and innovation. They help solidify Canada’s life sciences future.