While Boston, San Francisco and some cities in New Jersey are recognized centers for research in pharma, biotech and other life sciences, one city to the north is quietly establishing itself as a major hub for the industry. The Province of Ontario hosts 163 biotech companies, many of which are located in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making it the largest life sciences hub in Canada.
So why are established life sciences companies and promising new start-ups deciding to call Toronto their home? Many reasons – from investment opportunities to prospects for collaboration – are contributing to Toronto’s growing reputation as a great place for research and development in the life sciences.
1. Toronto’s Discovery District Brings Research Stakeholders Together
Life science innovations take place every day at universities and other research centers around the world. However, these institutions often lack the capital and other resources to commercialize their discoveries and share them with others.
Medical and Related Sciences – or, as it’s more commonly known, MaRS – supports these innovators in a number of ways. This centrally-located organization in Toronto’s Discovery District acts as an incubator for small biotech, medical device and other life sciences startups, some of which are spinoffs from the University of Toronto.
According to the City of Toronto, the Discovery District is “the densest geographical centre for research in the world,” with 2.5 square kilometres of research institutions and businesses. Over 30 medical research facilities are located in the Discovery District.
Currently, MaRS is home to 47 health venture companies, providing them with space to build their businesses, the opportunity to raise capital with which to invest in their ideas, and a connection to corporate partners who can contribute to commercialization efforts. Central to the mission of MaRS is to support promising new startups which, in turn, supports new job creation and keeps local entrepreneurial talent close to home.
In partnership with MaRS, the University of Toronto and the Ontario Government, Johnson and Johnson Innovation launched their first JLABSlife science incubator outside of the US. JLABS @ Toronto is home to 47 resident companies, about 40 percent of which are focused on developing new therapeutics.
“Toronto is home to a vibrant and prolific healthcare and life sciences community led by academic hospitals, world-class research institutions, top scientists, and a strong start-up ecosystem,” said Melinda Richter, head of JLABS. “For these reasons, Toronto is a natural choice for our first international expansion of JLABS.”
2. Ample Public and Private Investment into Research
All levels of government – from municipal, to provincial and federal – are involved in supporting the developing life sciences sector in Toronto. Last year, the Canadian and Ontario governments pledged to invest $98 million in the University of Toronto.
The funding will be used to update nearly 550 labs at the university as part of the Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project. The University of Toronto is almost matching the government’s investment by contributing an additional $91.8 million to the project.
“Generally speaking, Toronto has science/research and clinical expertise/facilities as good as, or better, than any North American city, and concentrations of expertise in areas such as artificial intelligence, regenerative medicine, neuroscience and oncology,” said John Preece, Advisor, Life Sciences Sector, Economic Development & Culture Division for the City of Toronto. “We have a very robust discovery engine, a strong clinical sector and lots of support for start-ups.”
In terms of private funding, venture capitalists are increasingly looking for local biotechs developing promising new therapies and devices in which to invest their money. Each year, investment firm Bloom Burton & Co., hosts its healthcare investor conference focused on connecting investors with Canadian healthcare companies.
This year’s event included 66 Canadian life sciences companies spanning pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device sectors, and hosted over 1,000 attendees. The featured companies – many of which are located in Toronto or the GTA – varied from well-established businesses to start ups, offering potential investors varied investment opportunities.
3. Major Pharmaceutical and Medical Device Companies Operate Out of the City
Over half of all of Canada’s pharmaceutical companies are located in Toronto and the GTA. Nearly 50 major multinational organizations – including AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, Gilead, and Pfizer – have set up sites in and around the city.
Medtronic, GE Healthcare and Siemens are just a few of the top medical device companies that operate in the GTA. The City of Toronto reports that “sixteen of the top 25 global medical device companies operate in the Toronto region.”
In addition, Toronto is the birthplace of multiple successful pharmaceutical developers and manufacturers which export products all over the world. Apotex is the largest Canadian pharmaceutical company, which conducts research and development for new drugs, and manufacturers and distributes those already approved by Health Canada and other global regulatory agencies.
Patheon is another example of a home-grown life sciences company, operating as a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) to other pharmaceutical companies. Both Apotex and Patheon were established in the GTA and have since expanded to include sites in other cities around the world.
4. Large Universities and Hospitals Attract the Best Talent
Eight universities and colleges in Toronto are charged with training the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. The University of Toronto is the largest university in Canada, with over 88,000 students and 14,000 faculty members.
Between 2015 and 2016, the University of Toronto was awarded a total of $1.2 billion in research funds. This funding, along with the University of Toronto’s medical school, attracts students, professors and researchers from around the world.
International students from 168 countries attend the University of Toronto each year. Students from China, India and the US top the list at 10,244, 864 and 698 students, respectively.
In addition to the major universities and colleges, Toronto is home to nine teaching hospitals. SickKids Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospitalhave some of the largest research programs, including those in the areas of cancer therapeutics, neuroscience and rare diseases.
5. Immigration Policies Attract Highly Skilled Individuals from Abroad
Immigration policies in the US following President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and in post-Brexit UK, have caused skilled workers to think twice before immigrating to these countries. This could have a positive effect on the influx of scientists and researchers from other nations into Canada.
Foreign-born individuals make up about 20 percent of the population of Canada, according to a 2013 National Household Survey conducted by Statistics Canada. The Canadian government has also implemented a new pilot program aimed at making it easier for high-growth companies to attract highly-skilled foreign professionals.
The global skills visa program could help Canadian companies hire international applicants in as little as two weeks – a process that usually takes up to a year. While the program is primarily aimed at helping technology firms recruit skilled workers, the program is supported by MaRS and has the potential to promote talent acquisition in the life sciences sector.
So what will the future bring for Toronto’s life sciences industry?
“I would expect the proliferation of small companies built around advanced technologies to continue, with some of them transitioning to scale/growth,” said Preece. “I would also expect some major discoveries in the next five years, such as a cure for type I diabetes and true autologous cell therapies.”
What do you think of the GTA’s life sciences sector and how it compares to other North American cities? Share your opinions in the comments section below!