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Ontario Life Sciences on the Rise

The province’s life sciences sector is turning heads with its unique ecosystem – but can it make the leap to global economic powerhouse? Life Sciences Ontario’s Jason Field tackles the question.

The Atlantic recently featured Toronto innovation hub MaRS Discovery District in a piece that asked the question – is Canada ready to compete for global talent?

The answer is yes. And the buzz that’s been building around our tech companies is now intensifying to Ontario’s life sciences sector.

Indeed, in 2016, Johnson & Johnson chose Toronto for its first JLABS life sciences incubator outside the US, joining the ranks of outposts in major hot spots like Boston, San Francisco, and New York.

“Here, you have the possibility of that whole spectrum of the healthcare system that doesn’t exist anywhere else in a square block like this,” JLABS’ Melinda Richter told the Financial Post.

It was a major vote of confidence – and it set the stage for an incredible year for our life sciences ecosystem.

In late August 2016, Sunovion Pharmaceuticals announced it was acquiring Toronto’s Cynapsus Therapeutics to the tune of $624 million.

By December, Bayer AG and Versant Ventures had inked a US $225-million investment to establish a Toronto-based stem cell research company, BlueRock Therapeutics – one of the largest series A financings of a biotech company to date. According to Bayer, the investment was made due to innovation and infrastructure in Toronto, particularly stemming from the MaRS hub, and the region’s emerging profile for excellence in science.

Hot on the heels of the BlueRock announcement came a number of key wins for Ontario companies: Toronto-based Synaptive Medical inked a key growth equity deal with General Atlantic. Ottawa’s Turnstone Biologics secured $41.4 million in financing led by OrbiMed, with participation from existing investors including FACIT and Versant Ventures.

These are just a handful of examples among the many Ontario-based companies turning heads and attracting foreign and domestic investment and talent to match.

So why is Ontario on the rise? Looking at the stats, it’s easy to see why we’re winning.

Data from Life Sciences Ontario’s 2015 Sector Report indicates Ontario ranks among the Top 3 North American jurisdictions by number of life sciences establishments and the among the Top 10 by employment. Conservative estimates put the industry’s annual revenues at $40.5B, which directly contributes $21.6B to Ontario’s GDP.

Six of Ontario’s universities have associated medical schools, including the University of Toronto, one of North America’s largest medical faculties. Our 44 universities and colleges produce more than 40,000 skilled graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) each year. Between 2001 and 2013, the sector’s job growth outpaced the provincial average by nearly 10 per cent and demonstrated resilience during the 2008 economic downturn.

It’s clear our sector has the research, innovations, talent, and partnerships to become a key driver of our knowledge economy. Foreign investors and global multinationals are seeing the value-add of Ontario’s ecosystem – including its scientific and research prowess and highly-educated talent base.

However, there are challenges within our own walls. Our sector is in dire need of access to capital – particularly risk capital that will further incentivize investment. And, we urgently require the guidance of a unified life sciences strategy. This will create crucial alignment on policy across our diverse life sciences sector and all levels of government.

This is the strategy that will shift Ontario life sciences from a “hot commodity” into a sustained economic powerhouse for years to come. The opportunity is in front of us: to truly seize it and capitalize on the rich resources we possess, we need a robust policy environment, a strong plan for the future, and a government willing to act on it.