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Spotlight: Life Sciences in Western Canada

Did you know...?

  • In 2015, the western Canadian life sciences industry earned $4.2 billion in revenue, 80 percent of which came from Alberta and British Columbia.* By comparison, Quebec's industry earned $5.3 billion in the same year, and Ontario's earned $8.4 billion.

Text version : Life science revenue

Life science revenue, 2015 ($M)

  • Exports of western Canadian pharmaceuticals and medical equipment totalled $1.2 billion in 2015, 83 percent more than in 2014.†

Text version : Life Science Exports

Life Science Exports ($M)

* Statistics Canada, custom calculations.

† ISED, Trade Data Online.

Life sciences is a broad sector that includes everything from hospitals and health clinics to pharmaceutical makers and agricultural biotechnology companies. The highest-growth areas include the development of new drugs advanced medical devices, particularly biopharmaceuticals,1 and agriculture and agri-food research, such as developing new crop varieties and improving livestock health.

Like other high-tech industries, the innovative life sciences sector is dominated by small, high-growth firms and faces challenges in obtaining access to capital and talent.2 Many firms look to the larger American market for funding and customers. For pharmaceutical startups, the multi-stage testing process makes it easier to secure investments according to their level of product development, but also means investors face longer timelines before they start seeing returns. Since these small companies lack the sophisticated apparatus needed to commercialize a new pharmaceutical; licensing deals and strategic partnerships are especially important for them.

DNA molecules

Western Canada

Western Canadian firms brought in 22 percent of Canada's life science revenue in 2016, totaling $4.2 billion. Every western province has its own unique capacities and specializations, defined by their particular array of research activities, flagship companies, and innovation ecosystems. Western life science clusters are active in a wide variety of fields, developing and commercializing innovative drugs, medical devices, crop varieties and agronomic technologies.

British Columbia

BC's life sciences sector earned $1.9 billion in 2015. The province is the largest exporter of medical devices in Western Canada. Its biggest life science company is Stemcell Technologies, a manufacturer of specialized cell culturing products that started in 1993 with a loan from Western Economic Diversification (WD) and now employs more than 800 people. Eighteen public life sciences companies in BC have over $1 million in annual revenues, and of those, three earn more than $200 million: Novelion Therapeutics (formerly QLT), specializing in developing vitamin A analogues to treat inherited retinal diseases; Angiotech Pharmaceuticals, which combines medical devices with pharmaceuticals to make drug-device combinations; and Medical Imaging Group, a medical imaging company.3

BC also hosts non-profits serving the life sciences sector. The Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, at the BC Cancer Agency, is the highest-capacity gene sequencing facility in Canada, contributing to genetics research in health, agriculture, and the environment. The University of British Columbia has commercialized over 80 life sciences technologies through partnerships and licensing with corporate partners, and fostered 94 spinoff companies, including QLT.4

Alberta

Open field with yellow flowers

Alberta is home to a growing life sciences sector, specializing in medical technology, health biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. Edmonton-based Fedora Pharmaceuticals conducted the largest biotechnology licensing deal in Canadian history in 2015, when it licensed a new antibiotic to be produced by Roche and Meiji Seika Pharma. Medical devices is a key area of growth, represented by firms like Innovative Trauma Care, a WD Western Innovation (WINN) Initiative recipient that markets a surgical clamp developed for field use, and NanoSpeed Diagnostics, another WINN recipient which developed a fingerprick test for vitamin D levels.

Genome Alberta is a publicly-funded not-for-profit that conducts genomics research, including proteomics and bioinformatics. Several companies have spun off from the University of Alberta, particularly in the emerging field of metabolomics, and the university also hosts research centres focused on biorefining, human nutrition, dairy, poultry, and swine. Research at the University of Calgary has given rise to companies like Calgary Scientific, a medical-imaging company and WINN recipient, and Lubris BioPharma, which develops synthetic lubricants to treat eye disorders.

Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan has leveraged its traditional strength in agriculture into expertise in new crop development and livestock science. For example, Prairie Plant Systems is a mature biopharmaceutical and biotechnology company, and Agrisoma Biosciences develops and exports a proprietary oilseed variant for use in biofuel feedstock.

The University of Saskatchewan hosts the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and the Saskatchewan Centre for Cyclotron Sciences, which together make medical isotopes and enable research on nuclear medicine; the Centre was funded through WD's Western Diversification Program. Also on campus are the Canadian Wheat Improvement program, which develops new wheat varieties, and the International Vaccine Centre, one of North America's largest BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories. Illustrating the way technology clusters reinforce one another, the CLS is also conducting research into agricultural applications for its isotopes, and the Vaccine Centre is the only facility in Canada with BSL-3 capability to study large-animal infectious diseases. In addition, the University of Saskatchewan has given rise to a number of innovative small businesses, such as Metabolix Oilseeds and Quantum Genetix.

Manitoba

Manitoba exported nearly $800 million of medicine in 2015, the most of any western province and the third-most in Canada.5 The province's most prominent drug company is Valeant Pharmaceuticals, whose principal North American manufacturing plant is located in Steinbach. Other health companies include Novadaq, which sells innovative medical imaging products, and Kane Biotech, which develops anti-infection technologies. A significant portion of the province's life science activity takes place in the agriculture and agri-food sector, where the market has grown rapidly for advanced information systems based on geomatics and sensor networks. Farmer's Edge, for example, sells data-driven agronomy solutions to farmers; founded in Manitoba in 2005, today it employs nearly 300 people.

Winnipeg hosts the National Microbiology Laboratory, Canada's only Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) containment facility, suitable for handling the most dangerous infectious diseases. Winnipeg is also home to the Institute for Biodiagnostics, which develops non-invasive diagnostic tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies, and Genesys Venture, a biotechnology accelerator which has helped a number of health-related startups achieve success, like the above-mentioned Kane Biotech.

 


[1] Biopharmaceutical drugs, also known as biologics, are derived from biological sources, like animals, plants, bacteria and viruses; well-known examples are vaccines and insulin. Biologics are usually much more complex than conventional chemically-synthesized drugs.

[2] Canadian Life Sciences Industry Forecast 2013, BC Life Sciences Economic Impact Report 2015, BioAlberta 2015 State of the Industry report.

[3] BC Life Sciences Economic Impact Report 2015.

[4] UBC University-Industry Liaison Office, full list of spin-off companies.

[5] ISED, Trade Data Online.