Scrutinizing their economic competitors, the leaders of the province of Ontario weren't pleased with the view. The manufacturing sector wasn't scoring high on the innovation scale.
Action was needed and taken in April 2008 when the Ministry of Research and Innovation (MRI) launched Ontario's Innovation Agenda, a $3.2 billion strategy to support research and commercialization projects by partnering with research hospitals, universities, private-sector entities and other governments.
Aggressive tactics are paying off for the province, which not only has replaced all of the jobs lost in the recession but also has added 91,000 new jobs. Of those, 38,000 are in the biotech sector, a particular focus of the strategy.
Asked about employment success, Ministry of Economic Development & Innovation for Ontario Brad Duguid replies, "Talent migrates to where the action is, and the action didn't happen by accident."
In fact, from 2010 to 2012, the Ontario government invested approximately $39.7 million in nine life-sciences companies supporting the creation of more than 500 new jobs, the retention of more than 650 existing positions and leveraging a total investment of more than $400 million.
The province is home to 900 life-sciences companies that produce $9.1 billion in revenue.
Admittedly it took some work to change the traditional university culture that had not been involved in the commercialization of products, explains Duguid. "But everyone is on board now and collaboration is intense between academia, public and private institutions."
Duguid is especially proud of the region's bragging rights since Toronto—Ontario's largest city—is now ranked fourth behind Silicon Valley, New York City and London in the world's top startup ecosystems by Startup Genome.
A Network of Excellence
Attaining recognition as a high-growth hotspot was made possible through an extensive network that was organized under the Ontario Network of Excellence. The network, involving the MaRS Discovery District, the Ontario Centers of Excellence and 14 Regional Innovation Centers, provides access to more than 400 "commercialization experts" located throughout the province who help entrepreneurs and technology-based companies launch and grow their businesses.
From 2007 to 2010, the network helped more than 2,000 companies to:
- Leverage more than $530 million in private investment and more than $144 million in public investment.
- Create/retain more than 25,000 jobs.
- Protect more than 5,700 new ideas through licenses, disclosures, patents and copyrights.
- Develop more than 2,100 prototypes.
- Bring more than 1,200 products and services to market.
- Facilitate more than 9,500 industry-research partnerships.
In April 2010, MRI announced an investment of more than $115 million in 19 leading-edge research projects. Life sciences is a target investment area for the province. Researchers on these projects are working to discover new health care therapies and technologies as well as technologies that protect the environment and biodiversity.
One example is XLV Diagnostics Inc., a company formed by the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute (TRRI). Under the leadership of John Rowlands, the company was created to market a new breakthrough called X-ray Light Valve. The technology is an inexpensive, efficient and portable alternative to digital X-rays with a fraction of the radiation exposure.
TRRI's partnership with the Sunnybrook Research Institute, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and commercialization expert MaRS Innovation, combined with the Ontario Network of Excellence, drove the research to market. Funding also was provided by the Ontario Research Fund's Research Excellence program.
"We hope to have our manufacturing facility set up in Thunder Bay, which would mean a significant number of jobs created," Rowlands says.
"Our extensive capital investment will create the companies that will eventually take over our economy," Duguid explains. "When I walk into the universities and partnership programs such as MaRS, I can feel the confidence and energy and know our planning has come to fruition."