‘Just get­ting started’

P.E.I. BioAl­liance ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Rory Fran­cis re­flects on the Is­land’s bio­science sec­tor

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - BUSINESS - BY TER­RENCE MCEACHERN ter­[email protected]­guardian.pe.ca

It’s be­come a fa­mil­iar mes­sage on the Is­land — that a com­pany doesn’t have to be in Toronto or Mon­treal or Van­cou­ver to be glob­ally suc­cess­ful in the biotech sec­tor.

And, it was a mes­sage that Rory Fran­cis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the P.E.I. BioAl­liance, re­minded an au­di­ence re­cently as he stood at a podium at Holland Col­lege and pre­sented the Char­lot­te­town­based BioVec­tra with the BIOTECanada Gold Leaf award for top com­pany.

BioVec­tra is one of roughly 54 com­pa­nies in the P.E.I. BioAl­liance, a pri­vate sec­tor-led, not-for­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that de­vel­ops and co­or­di­nates the growth strat­egy for the Is­land’s bio­science clus­ter.

Fran­cis launched the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2005 with around 10 early stage biotech com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Di­ag­nos­tic Chem­i­cals Lim­ited. BioVec­tra evolved from Di­ag­nos­tic Chem­i­cals as did an­other P.E.I. BioAl­liance mem­ber – Sek­isui Di­ag­nos­tics, which was re­cently named a top-100 em­ployer in Canada for the sec­ond year in a row.

Orig­i­nally from For­tune Bridge, P.E.I., Fran­cis has an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from Mount Al­li­son Univer­sity in ge­ol­ogy and chem­istry and a mas­ter’s de­gree from the Univer­sity of Water­loo in hy­dro­ge­ol­ogy.

He worked for the prov­ince from 1991 to 2008, in­clud­ing in 1997 and 1998 as the deputy minister of agri­cul­ture when the idea of cre­at­ing “some­thing in the life sci­ence area” was dis­cussed as a new eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­nity.

That led to the cre­ation of the Belvedere Life Sci­ence Re­search Group in­volv­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions such as UPEI, the At­lantic Vet­eri­nary Col­lege, the Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency and the Food Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre (now Bio Food Tech), to name a few.

The cre­ation of the group was in­tended to foster col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween en­ti­ties that nor­mally didn’t talk to each other, ex­plained Fran­cis.

Then, a group com­prised of then premier Pat Binns, Wade MacLauch­lan (who was at that time the pres­i­dent of UPEI) and ACOA con­vinced the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil to es­tab­lish a re­search in­sti­tute in Char­lot­te­town. And, with the cred­i­bil­ity of the NRC’s even­tual pres­ence (in 2007), Fran­cis, who had moved on to deputy minister of health and so­cial ser­vices, was ap­proached in 2004 by that same group to form “this nascent bio some­thing en­tity.”

Be­sides the growth from around 10 biotech com­pa­nies to 54 com­pa­nies to­day, sales have also quadru­pled to more than $250 mil­lion and 1,600 peo­ple are work­ing in the sec­tor.

Fran­cis said keys to grow­ing the sec­tor were a good plan and an “align­ment of vi­sion” from aca­demic lead­ers, gov­ern­ment and the busi­ness com­mu­nity as well as un­der­stand­ing that a longterm com­mit­ment was re­quired. He ex­plained that it takes time to com­mer­cial­ize new prod­ucts and tech­nolo­gies and es­tab­lish cred­i­bil­ity as a lo­ca­tion for com­pa­nies to grow and thrive.

“It’s not go­ing to be an overnight suc­cess. These things take time,” he said.

Fran­cis said one of the drivers for the sec­tor’s growth — both in terms of ex­ist­ing com­pa­nies as well as at­tract­ing new com­pa­nies — was the cre­ation of the Emer­gence Bio­science Busi­ness In­cu­ba­tor pro­gram about five years ago that is headed by Martin Yuill. The na­tional pro­gram sup­ports, men­tors and ad­vises about 65 startup and growth stage com­pa­nies (in­clud­ing about 25 from P.E.I.) to bring their prod­ucts and ser­vices to the mar­ket.

But, growth can present chal­lenges.

“We’re out of space,” said Fran­cis.

He ex­plained that the lack of space in­volves spe­cial­ized space that meets reg­u­la­tory ap­proval, such as from Health Canada, the Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency or the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, in or­der to man­u­fac­ture prod­ucts or per­form re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

“We’re at a real risk of not be­ing able to land com­pa­nies here, who we’ve been work­ing on for two or three years, usu­ally early stage com­pa­nies.”

Fran­cis said what is needed is a new fa­cil­ity in the BioCom­mons Re­search Park. There are plans to meet this need, but they still need fi­nanc­ing.

Over­all, Fran­cis said the Is­land’s bio­science sec­tor has proven that it is, and will be, “one of the pil­lars of the evolv­ing econ­omy.”

With plenty of room to grow. “It’s taken 14 years. Frankly, I think we’re just at liftoff. It’s been good, but we’re just get­ting started.”

TER­RENCE MCEACHERN/THE GUARDIAN

Rory Fran­cis is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the P.E.I. BioAl­liance.

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