Growing Investments in PEI’s Bioscience Sector
- Collaboration is a key characteristic of the bioscience sector in PEI, with academia, the private sector, and government working together to establish a unified strategy.
- Foreign investment has been growing in the PEI bioscience sector, with many startups and small companies getting acquired by large multinationals.
- Organizations such as the PEI BioAlliance are continuously working to develop infrastructure and training initiatives to establish a pipeline of talent for the bioscience sector.
Foreign direct investment in PEI’s bioscience sector has been growing and will only continue to grow thanks to the efforts of the industry to establish key partnerships, maintain an environment of collaboration, and ensure there is an availability of key talent. Companies coming to PEI can expect robust support from academia and the government.
What are Prince Edward Island’s top competitive advantages in attracting foreign direct investment?
Prince Edward Island is a very interesting place. It is not one of the larger parts of the country. For competitive advantages in the bioscience sector, we should start with our collaborative environment. Collaboration is in our nature. Companies coming into the province have the opportunity to connect with businesses, research, academia, and government agencies in an environment where relationships are built very quickly. That is an important advantage and companies that come to Prince Edward Island feel that sense of partnership immediately.
“Prince Edward Island focuses on the bioscience and biotech sector, and we do not try to do everything.”
Our second competitive advantage is our focus. Prince Edward Island focuses on the bioscience and biotech sector, and we do not try to do everything. For example, our technical areas of focus are biopharmaceutical manufacturing, natural product chemistry, animal health, fish health, and diagnostics related areas, and our strategy over the years has been to be really excellent at a number of areas of market opportunity.
How does the PEI bioscience cluster facilitate the growth of the province’s bio sector?
The BioAlliance has existed for about 15 years and the model is a cluster development organization. We are not a trade organization per se; it is really about the partnership between the business community, the academic and research community, government partners, and investors. These stakeholders are all represented around our board table. The structure of the BioAlliance from a governance standpoint reflects partnerships, which is so important to the successes we have had over the last 15 years. That is the essential component of that. These partners are aligned around a specific strategy. What differentiates how we have accomplished the growth of the sector in PEI has been that everyone is in the same boat rowing together. We have a single strategy every three years and we are just about to release a new updated strategy setting new targets and goals for the next five-year period. The strategy for the bioscience sector is developed by our partner organizations so academia, government, and the private sector do not pull us in different directions. Agreeing on priorities and the allocation of resources and then executing that strategy together has been a huge part of our success.
“We have a very dynamic cluster with about 2,100 employees in the sector and revenues of about $265 million in 2019.”
The cluster has now grown to about 60 businesses in the bio sector, seven key research partners, research institutions, academic partners, and government partners. The companies range in size from very small startups to large companies such as BioVectra with almost 500 employees, Elanco, and Sekisui. These are multinational companies in our backyard and we have pretty much everything in terms of size and scale. We have a very dynamic cluster with about 2,100 employees in the sector and revenues of about $265 million in 2019. We are in the midst of a very dynamic growth story here in Prince Edward Island’s biosciences sector.
What are some recent notable foreign investments in the province?
A recent one would be BioVectra, our largest company. They have been here for a long time but they were just recently purchased by HIG Capital, a multinational private equity firm. BioVectra is one of the leading contract development companies and manufacturers of pharmaceutical ingredients [in North America, and that was started from a garage here in Prince Edward Island. It has been really exciting to see that company grow very quickly, now with another facility in Nova Scotia expanding beyond our shores.
Another example would be Elanco or Eli Lilly, an animal health company that is now a publicly-traded company. Elanco bought Novartis Animal Health, which bought another small company called Aqua Health. With this, Elanco now has a business for fish health and vaccine development manufacturing here in Prince Edward Island. Elanco has 30% of the global market in fish vaccines for the very fast-growing aquaculture industry. It started as a small company with great technology. Elanco and Novartis have invested and grown their businesses here in Prince Edward Island.
“The bioscience industry produces functional chemistry that is sustainable. Those products will replace petroleum-based sources of chemistry in all manner of products”
There is also Nautilus Biosciences, a company that was a startup here at the University of Prince Edward Island. Its focus is on marine natural products such as microbes harvested from the ocean in a sustainable way from the Arctic to the equator. This bank of microbes has very interesting functional chemistry. If you know how to talk to the microbes through fermentation processes, they can produce functional chemistry that is a very important source of future compounds for products such as personal care products to cancer treatment drugs. The bioscience industry produces functional chemistry that is sustainable. Those products will replace petroleum-based sources of chemistry in all manner of products that are used every day. This is sustainable and green chemistry that can be manufactured sustainably without the carbon footprint of petroleum-based sources. Nautilus’ technology platform became very interesting to one of its clients, Croda International, the largest chemistry company in the UK and a Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) 100 company. Croda decided this technology was so important to their future and their clients’ futures that they bought the company. They have invested here in Prince Edward Island in some very high-end robotic systems for the assay-guided fractionation and screening of these metabolites of microbes that live in the ocean.
What are the challenges and opportunities for PEI to make the bioscience ecosystem more competitive?
The challenges and opportunities are almost one and the same. The challenges have come from growth. We have grown so quickly in the last few years that it has put a good deal of pressure on infrastructure in terms of space, particularly incubation facilities, wet lab facilities, and scale-up facilities because of our focus on bioprocess manufacturing. The second factor is human resources in terms of skills and training. We have always paid a lot of attention to the human resource side of things and so PEI has to decide how we are going to find and establish a pipeline of talent, which is going to be necessary to support the growth of the bioscience industry.
Those challenges are also opportunities. On the infrastructure side, we have a 20,000 sq. ft. biomanufacturing incubator under construction, which will be available to companies to scale up manufacturing. It will be completed in June. On the drawing board, we are also working on a BioAccelerator that is focused on scale-up manufacturing and the incubation of early-stage companies.
“Universities in the region are establishing undergraduate and graduate programs focused on particular areas of the life sciences and bioscience to create a pipeline of talent.”
On the human resource side, to make sure we have the pipeline of talent and skilled people that we need, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We created the Canadian Alliance for Skills and Training in Life Sciences (CASTL), a very exciting initiative less than a year old. On the academic side, we have partnerships with the University of Prince Edward Island and Holland College in Prince Edward Island, Acadia University in Nova Scotia, and Université de Moncton in New Brunswick. Those are our academic partnerships. Universities in the region are establishing undergraduate and graduate programs focused on particular areas of the life sciences and bioscience to create a pipeline of talent in specialty areas like bioprocessing, animal health, fish health, and diagnostics.
The second stream of training is called reskilling. It is about working with individuals who are either underemployed or coming out of other sectors of the economy with transferable skills. In two weeks, we will be launching the first cohort, and there will be multiple cohorts of individuals coming through an online training program and a workplace-integrated learning model. Those individuals will then have an opportunity to work full-time with the companies they are placed with.
The third track is what we call upskilling. Companies want to invest in their employees and increase their skills in a number of really important areas. The first effort will be in the biopharmaceutical manufacturing area. We are just completing a market survey across Canada of companies in this space. We developed a program in partnership with the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training in Dublin, Ireland. We are also in conversation with the BIO Digital campus in France, which is another initiative to apply a whole series of digital-based technologies to skills and training. That includes hands-on training facilities for biopharmaceutical manufacturing, which we will have here in Prince Edward Island.
These are very exciting initiatives with many moving parts to them, but this is not new to us. Each time we see a challenge, we also see it as an opportunity. We have taken these kinds of opportunities on a national level before. From our cluster, we launched Natural Products Canada, which is now a national cluster focused on the natural products space with people and infrastructure across Canada. Our incubation program Emergence is working with early-stage companies. Its scope is now regional, national, and international in terms of its client base. There are 50 companies active in that virtual incubator helping early-stage companies move technologies through the proof of concept stage to the marketplace. We have become quite good at that and that is what is attracting investment, money, and talent to our backyard.
What are the supports available in PEI to foreign investors?
For the early-stage companies we work with, an important support comes from a national program, the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Tax Credit. It is a big investment made by the Canadian government in early-stage companies rich in research and development (R&D).
In terms of the skills and talent pipeline, we have CASTL and the brainpower coming through that program. One of the first questions we get asked is whether companies can access talent to grow their business in Prince Edward Island. One of our advantages in PEI has been the ability to allow companies to grow based on a great talent pool. We are investing more in that.
“In PEI, we understand the market, regulatory strategy, and business models that will allow companies to move from their technology to commercial success.”
Those are two key important parts of it. We have matching funds and other incentives for companies but those are all secondary to the strategic reason companies come to PEI: our expertise in the various subject matters areas I mentioned earlier. In PEI, we understand the market, regulatory strategy, and business models that will allow companies to move from their technology to commercial success. That is a very important strength we have.