iotech companies seeking locations in the northeast U.S. or eastern Canada might be forgiven today for overlooking Prince Edward Island sites. But that might not be the case for long. PEI is Canada's smallest province with just 140,000 residents on 2,200 square miles (5,600 sq. km.) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But it is staking its claim in the global biotechnology industry with a growing cluster of about 30 companies, including Genzyme, Novartis and others, specializing mainly in R&D and commercialization of bioactives-based human and animal health and nutrition products.
The provincial government of Premier Robert Ghiz is investing significantly in the sector with a BioCommons Research Park now under development that will open in 2012 with incubator and business-accelerator space that is reportedly already spoken for. Established companies, such as Neurodyn and its new subsidiary CNS CRO (short for central nervous system contract research organization) will also locate in the new park.
The federal government, too, sees the island province's biotech potential and opened its National Research Council (NRC) Canada Institute for Nutrisciences and Health in 2007 at the University of Prince Edward Island. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the province and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada also contributed funding to the Institute.
Cluster, Not Hub
"PEI is not thought of as a hub of biotechnology," allows Denis G. Kay, Ph.D., Neurodyn's chief science officer and director of CRO operations at the CNS CRO subsidiary. "But we are very excited about the cluster's progress here — it's now generating more than CA$100 million in revenue per year."
The three-year-old NRC Institute and access to provincial seed capital are two drivers behind the formation of the new CNS CRO subsidiary on PEI. Kay says research on models for testing treatments for progressive neurological diseases at the University of British Columbia came east to the University of PEI thanks to the "financial kick" the province provided such research initiatives.
"The Institute has a major focus on neurodegenerative diseases and neuroinflammatory processes," says Kay. "So the science going on there overlaps very well with our own R&D efforts. There is also a very strong neurobehavioral testing group at UPEI that has highly sophisticated and prognostic neurobehavioral testing capacity for testing therapies. Finally, there was a very strong business-development initiative mounted by the province and the federal government. So we had seed capital to start the R&D efforts."
Dale Zajicek is COO of BioVectra, the province's largest employer in the biotech sector with about 130 employees. The company is a contract manufacturer specializing in microbial fermentation services. In April, BioVectra announced the doubling of its capacity to handle clinical-stage projects and relative downstream processing services. The expansion will create about 10 new positions at its Charlottetown facility.
"The life sciences industry here is really growing, in part because the provincial government has mobilized it," says Zajicek. "They are working to bring companies in."
That, says PEI BioAlliance Inc. Executive Director Rory Francis, is key to growing the cluster.
"Getting people here on the ground is important, having them meet people, see the science platform and the quality infrastructure we have, what the companies are doing — that's important for a small jurisdiction like us." PEI Bio Alliance coordinates private-sector, research, academic and government organizations building the province's biotech cluster.
"We're pleased with the growth of the sector," says Francis. "In the last few years we have doubled the number of companies and private-sector revenues and have seen a significant increase in the rate of employment, both private and public sector. The platform investment is probably about $85 million to $90 million per year, which is significant for a cluster this size, and that has more than doubled in the last five years. There's a lot of emphasis on building that technology base, knowing that's what is important to companies working in the aspect of biotech that our companies focus on."
The 65-acre (26-hectare) BioCommons Research Park will be a critical component of the province's biotech infrastructure. The park is a short distance from UPEI and is adjacent to an industrial park where Genzyme, BioVectra and Novartis are currently located — Novartis recently opened an $8-million vaccine-manufacturing facility there.
"BioCommons will also have a facility for fermentation and chemical synthesis, and a key service provider that will support that center — we call it a commercialization support center with access to brainpower and talent we can connect companies in our cluster to," says Francis. "It's a full-service incubator as opposed to just a real estate play. So the model is much more value added in terms of incubation, mentoring and giving companies access to tools and technologies."
It needs to be, says Francis, because the park — and the province in general — is competing with much bigger players for biotech investment.
"There's a lot of gravitational pull to the major metro areas and all they have to offer. We have to work harder to defy that gravity."