Unlike many biotech clusters, which owe their existence to government policy as opposed to organic growth, Ontario boasts decades of expertise in medical and pharmaceutical research. “In our case, it is 100 years of incredible innovation, including cutting-edge innovation in stem cells studies,” says Brad Duguid, Ontario’s minister of economic development and innovation.
Indeed, the province has a lot to boast about. It employs more than 33,000 people in the bio-medical field and plays host to companies including Glaxo Smith Kline, Genzyme and Pfizer, as well as the world-renowned Ontario Brain Institute.
According to Mr Duguid, the sheer presence of biotech professionals in Ontario and the discoveries they have made serves as a magnet when it comes to attracting even more businesses. “Some of the developments [in the biotech sector] are the result of governmental vision, but a lot of it happens on its own,” he says.
Yet the Ontario authorities still have an ambition to increase the level of new biotech projects in the province. “We will focus on continuing our efforts to attract investors. Finding venture capitalists can be challenging, especially given the state of the global economy, but it is crucial if we want to take advantage of the potential we have here,” says Mr Duguid. Evidence of Ontario's commitment to taking advantage of this potential came in 2009, when the province's government proposed that $4.5bn be spent on tax cuts over a three-year period with the intention of halving the fiscal expenditure of new businesses.
Mr Duguid says that one area in which Ontario, and Canada as a whole, must improve is in self-promotion. “It [is part of] our culture… we [are not used to] being out there and shouting from the rooftops about our successes,” he says. However, given Ontario’s strong and visible presence at the world's biggest trade fairs, among them Mipim, 2012 Bio International and the Farnborough International Airshow, it seems that the province is making up ground in this area too.
Despite its list of successes in recent years, Ontario is only Canada's second largest biotech cluster. Quebec is the country's biotech leader, both in terms of the number of businesses operating in the province, as well as the numbers of research institutions.
Montreal, the heart of bio-medical hub in Quebec, is the home of the operations of companies such as Astra Zeneca and Merck Frosst, and plays host to the study centres of the Biotech Research Institute, the Quebec Proteomics Centre and the Genome Quebec Innovation Centre, among others.
Quebec and Ontario have a history of rivalry when it comes to attracting investment and dipping into Canada's talent pool. However, in recent years the two have been working together in biotech projects. In June 2011, the governments of both provinces established the Life Sciences Corridor, which was set up with the objective of creating a common business space between the two as well as reducing trade barriers.
Nevertheless, Quebec still strives to ensure that it remains Canada's leading destination for life sciences. Sam Hamad, Quebec’s minister of economic development, innovation and export trade, points to a key element which helps his province stand out when it comes to attracting new business. “The money is there. We have subsidies for companies and loans for companies,” he says, adding that the government's total support for the biotech industry stands at about $800m, with $200m invested through the province’s involvement in venture capital. “If you have an expansion project, the government can subsidise it. Similarly, if a company plans to increase its activity in research, we can provide the R&D credit.”
As is the case with Ontario, Quebec is becoming increasingly active when it comes to building awareness about the province’s potential for investment in life sciences. According to Quebec’s Biopharmaceutical Strategy, launched in 2009, the total sum spent over the three years of its activity will be $124m. Further proof, not that it was needed, of the government's commitment to the biotech sector.