Written by Andrew Seale
Canada’s largest combined life sciences sector sits neatly within the boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area. The region is a writhing ecosystem, one where six of the top 10 global pharmaceutical companies including Roche, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline call home, sharing talent and intellectual resources with research nodes at the cutting edge of life sciences like MaRS Discovery District and JLABS.
While ideas are being incubated, groups like TO Health! raise the profile of the industry as a whole, advocating for a unified Toronto Region Human Health and Science Cluster Action Plan.
The life sciences revolution is alive and well.
“If you look at the level of the basic scientific research that goes on in Toronto, it’s really second only to Boston in terms of quality,” says Jeffrey Coull, president and CEO of Encycle Therapeutics, a Toronto drug discovery startup built on the back of research by Dr. Andrei Yudin at the University of Toronto. “And even it’s quantity, the discoveries made every day are major discoveries, it’s going on all around us.”
The sphere – which employs 36,800 Torontonians – is dominated by smaller companies and startups (63 per cent of companies in the province employ less than 10 employees) which might explain the 115 per cent surge in venture capital funding in the life sciences sector.
Like Encycle, these companies are tackling a myriad of challenges at the apex of modern medicine. Proteocyte, based out of MaRS, is using imaging software, predictive algorithms and clinical databases to predict invasive cancers – specifically oral – changing the way we diagnose and treat the disease.
“We're right on hospital row, we have access to the best physicians and scientists around,” says John Davis, CEO of Proteocyte.
These startups are also re-envisioning the way we use current technologies like 3D printing. Through it’s 100-member-strong Medical Makers initiative, 3D4MD is amassing a digital library of quality-tested, crowdsourced, 3D printable files to make low cost, personalized medical supplies on demand, in hard to reach places including outer space.
Other companies like serial entrepreneur Cameron Piron’s Synaptive Medical are using robots and mapping systems to guide neurosurgeons through surgery. Starting a second endeavour in the city and scaling it up to 350 employees was an easy call for Piron.
“When we started (our first startup) it was almost a dirty word thinking about doing a medical startup and now I think it’s a focus and strength of the environment in the city of Toronto,” he says. “It’s fundamentally different and allowing us to be much more aggressive in our approach because it’s really a foundation we can build off.”
He points out that it’s the early foundation built through both larger pharmaceutical companies, early-stage incubators and funding support from all levels of government that is helping put Toronto on the map as a world class ecosystem to build a life sciences startup within.
“One thing that's happened in Ontario is a long sustained effort to support research in these areas, so there is always a flood of new technologies, concepts and new talent,” says Piron. “It really (comes down to) that long sustained effort – if it was periodic, you wouldn't have the same kind of breadth and depth of technology opportunities that we’re seeing come forward.”
StartUp Spotlight on: Toronto Life Sciences Ecosystem
We start this series with a look at 3D-printed personalized medical supplies company 3D4MD. Check back to learn about other Toronto-based life sciences companies.