Talent: Hamilton’s Greatest Resource
- Hamilton provides key logistical infrastructure, from an airport to ever-growing public transportation systems, that helps innovators in the region to stay connected.
- Hamilton’s proximity to Toronto and the US border means innovators have access to vast markets and key collaborative opportunities.
- Hamilton is home to academic institutions that have a strong focus on research, thus supplying the region with a steady flow of high-quality talent.
Hamilton is situated perfectly within Ontario to have the best access to talent. With no shortage of high-quality academic institutions, the city’s proximity to key locations also gives it direct access to talent. This talent is the backbone of successful life sciences companies, giving Hamilton an edge over its competitors.
What is McMaster Innovation Park and how does it fit into Hamilton’s innovation and business ecosystem?
Firstly, thank you so much for inviting me. I have been looking forward to this, so I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.
I am sure you have heard that Zen saying that goes, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We have a modern take on that that says if a researcher makes a brilliant discovery, but nobody ever hears about it or it never gets applied towards saving a child’s life or feeding a village, is that brilliant discovery really a good idea? Unpacking that saying will tell you what we do as a research park. We are a research park and we are owned by McMaster University but we are a for-profit entity. Our job, in a nutshell, is not to do the research but to make sure that the world hears about the discoveries made by the brilliant researchers at McMaster University.
“The raison d’être of MIP is to bring brilliant ideas to commercial reality by being a bridge between academia and industry.”
We are the guys that make sure the world hears about it when the tree falls in the forest. In short, we act as a bridge between academia and industry. There is a bunch of brilliant people within universities who are doing amazing research and there is a big, wide world out there that can use some of that research. We act as a bridge and intermediary. On one end of the bridge is the university and on the other end is industry. Our job is to be that hybrid zone so that when there are brilliant ideas and brilliant people in the university who can bring ideas to life, we connect them to industry, which can include startups and large-scale companies. The raison d’être of MIP is to bring brilliant ideas to commercial reality by being a bridge between academia and industry.
How would you describe Hamilton’s life science innovation ecosystem and collaboration within it?
On the research side, we are incredibly strong. We have McMaster University, the most research-intensive university in the country that brings in more industry-led research and absolute dollars than any other university in the country. They are not the only ones. We have Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and St. Joseph’s, which are both research hospitals. Keep in mind that research is not all about the lab; it is about how we bring it out into the real world. The availability of HHS and St. Joseph’s and the collaboration between themselves and McMaster is hugely powerful.
“Innovation is about bringing discovery to life and the academic institutions in Hamilton are phenomenal at that.”
Last but not least is Mohawk College, also the most research-intensive college in the country. A lot of people get the impression that innovation is all about doing the original discovery. Innovation is about bringing discovery to life and the academic institutions in Hamilton are phenomenal at that. When you combine the university and college with the teaching hospitals, you will see a great early-stage ecosystem. We have the research component, the ability to teach it to folks, and the talent that can bring it to life.
Where we are not as strong is when it comes to large life science companies. We need more of them. We have public sector and research components, but now we need larger companies.
The good news is that they are starting to come. We are starting to grow them here. Fusion Pharmaceuticals at MIP is a great example. They were with us since inception all the way to where they are today. We still need more of those and we need bigger companies.
What are Hamilton’s top competitive advantages for attracting foreign direct investment in the life sciences sector?
When you look at any successful life science ecosystem, at its core sits the research prowess. We have that with the research hospitals, McMaster, and Mohawk, but what else do we have? As you move on the spectrum from research to biomanufacturing, the availability of logistical services is pivotal. The proximity of Hamilton’s airport to major research centers is absolutely critical to our biomanufacturing strategy. With the COVID-19 vaccines, for example, we were not watching them do the research; we were watching them put the vaccines on airplanes and ship them all over the world. As you go from research to the next evolution of biomanufacturing, the availability of logistics is hugely important.
“McMaster and Mohawk are sources of ongoing talent. Hamilton also sits in the Greater Toronto Area and so there is talent throughout the area.”
Additionally, within life sciences, the game is won and lost on talent. Talent is the name of the game within biotech and the life sciences. McMaster and Mohawk are sources of ongoing talent. Hamilton also sits in the Greater Toronto Area and so there is talent throughout the area. Seventy percent of life science people who work in Downtown Toronto live in Mississauga, Oakville, and Burlington. This gives us close proximity to talent.
Furthermore, Hamilton has great availability of land and services. Life science ecosystems have to have a place to grow and Hamilton has that. Some people in Hamilton do not necessarily like to hear this but the proximity of Toronto and the US border is a huge component. The Hamilton airport is close but Toronto Pearson International Airport is also there as well as Downtown Toronto. With the ongoing light rail transit (LRT) project in Hamilton, we are going to be able to get from anywhere to Toronto and Hamilton. The access to talent and developable land are all things that add up to really a great opportunity for investors. You can almost feel it these days in the buzz that people have started to notice Hamilton for all of its attributes.
What are successful instances of commercialisation of research that have come out of Hamilton and its ecosystem?
That is what we do all day. You have to understand commercialization is not a direct line. Sometimes the way you bring a technical idea to life is through a startup. We have The Forge, which is McMaster’s incubator, and the Innovation Factory, which is a Regional Innovation Centre. Quite literally, every day there are companies that go through there and come to life. A case in point is VoxNeuro. It is a medical device that does electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of the brain and then performs quantitative analysis for concussions and more. They grew and did their research in McMaster in conjunction with HHS. They went through the incubation programs, the Forge, and the Innovation Factory. They are now in the process of doing a capital raise. They reached out to me and other folks and we connected them to industry and looked for financers. To get a license for the device, they can go to the McMaster Industry Liaison Office and the technology transfer office to do the technology transfer there. They just got Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for their product and they now work through our sales and marketing teams.
Fusion Pharmaceuticals is a company that is way further along. Fusion is a company that started in McMaster with researcher Dr. John Valliant. He came up through the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization (CPDC). They were able to get custom-made facilities and now they have gone public on the NASDAQ.
Has there been increased interest from foreign groups in Hamilton’s life sciences sector?
Yes. Here is a little bit of background. The unrivalled juggernaut within the life science industry is the Boston-Cambridge area. However, even with Harvard, MIT, and Boston University, there is a lack of talent there. They cannot generate enough talent to satisfy the demand anymore and so there is this global push now to go set up operations in other areas. That is why we are seeing so much global movement to the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.
I talked earlier about talent; technical talent is one thing that we have lots of but still need more of. Leadership talent is another thing. You need people who are as comfortable with a spreadsheet as they are with a microscope. We are slowly building up the availability of leadership talent.
“The Greater Toronto and Hamilton area is a source for great talent, which means great opportunity.”
On a global basis, whether it is from Europe or Asia but primarily from the US, we are seeing that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area is a source for great talent, which means great opportunity. We are seeing an increase in that recognition, which is phenomenal. It is really good to see. Fifteen years ago, trying to get foreign venture capitalists (VCs) into our area was a challenge, but now they are here and setting up offices.
Hamilton has unrivalled research capabilities and a great availability of talent. We have places to grow and a willingness to make it happen. It is a great place to do business and invest.