Each year, BIOTECanada hosts a two week conference to introduce large companies and investors to the biotech community, and every year it's a sellout, says Andrew Casey, president and chief executive officer. BIOTECanada is an Ottawa-based association that represents about 250 member companies that fall into three categories: health, industrial and agricultural.
"The investor turnout is a good omen as to what's going on in Canada for the industry," he says. In fact investors currently rank Canada as third in the world as a strategic place for investment in biotech. (The United States and Germany are first and second).
"They see Canada as a rich marketplace. Some [international] venture capital firms are even setting up shop here."
Canada's strength in this industry has been a longstanding one. "Our history in biotech is pretty significant," Casey explains. "A lot of biotech solutions to crops were developed here, such as canola oil. A lot of vaccines were also started here."
He attributes that to a strong post-secondary education system, a highly educated workforce and relative economic strength. "Industries such as forestry, mining, oil and gas and fishing don't have to look far to find resources to compete in the new bio-economy."
One thriving biotech company is Sirona Biochem Corp. in Vancouver. Sirona's team has developed a complex carbohydrate chemistry for addressing unmet medical needs in a variety of areas, from diabetes and cancer to anti-inflammatory diseases.
"Carbohydrate chemistry offers tantalizing possibilities for therapies and diagnostic tools to fight everything from cancer, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to arthritis," says Dr. Howard Verrico, Sirona Biochem chairman and founder. "It could play a role in developing clinically efficient vaccines to fight cancers and other diseases."
Sirona's technique has also found a place in the booming anti-aging and cosmetic markets - a crossover that is enabling the company to drive revenue streams earlier in the production cycle. To date it has established a foothold through partnerships with North American, Asian and European entities, including a major pharmaceuticals, med- ical centres and cosmeceutical companies.
"The opportunities for this type of ingredient are enormous," says Neil Belenkie, Sirona Biochem's CEO. "Diabetes is the fourth largest pharmaceutical market in the world, accounting for $471-billion in treatments in 2012 in the U.S. alone. Skin-lightening formulations to reverse sun damage is a $432-million dollar market and growing at 18% annually. And the global market for anti-aging products is $300-billion a year, and forecasted to continue double-digit growth in the foreseeable future."
When asked about the multi-pronged approach, Belenkie explains it's often the nature of biotech research. He likens it to an Intel chip. "Every computer has one. You can put your own screen, keyboard and software around it, but that chip is the backbone for everything. What we create is something that you can build a cocktail of ingredients around to create a product."
"People don't realize that all drugs going through different approval trials have to come from somewhere," adds Dr. Verrico. "Some lab has to create the first chemical entity for drug or ingredient discovery."
The advantage of gaining an early foothold on the cosmetics side is that it takes approximately 12 months to complete research and testing of ingredients. Pharmaceutical research into a new drug can take years and millions of dollars before becoming commercial viable. "Cosmetics can yield near term commercial success with strong royalty steams," Belenkie notes.
Paul Drohan, president and CEO of LifeSciences BC, a Vancouver-based industry association, says today's environment is an interesting one for the biotech industry in Canada and globally. "It’s a really unique time. We're starting to see capital coming back, and some unique agreements being signed with international organizations. Sirona, for one, has established a foothold in China, as well as Europe where government is very supportive of the life sciences industry."
Given the changes taking place in the world today, the opportunities for the industry are enormous, Casey says. "In the next 20 years the world population will reach nine billion. That will put enormous pressure on the planet and our health. How will we feed them? How will we reduce CO2 emissions? How can we improve health? These are all things that play an important part in moving the biotech industry forward."