New Medical Devices Commercialization Centre will draw investment, top talent to region, officials say

A new Ottawa-based facility designed to find ways of bringing cutting-edge medical technology to market faster will give the local life sciences sector a shot in the arm, industry insiders say.

The federal government announced recently the capital will be home to two of five new commercialization centres the feds have agreed to fund after the latest competition in the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) program.

One of them, the Medical Devices Commercialization Centre, will initially be headquartered at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. The facility, which will receive $14.9 million in federal funding over the next five years, will bring together a network of major industry partners – including scientists, doctors, hospitals, research institutes and medical device manufacturers – to brainstorm ways of accelerating the development, production and marketing of medical devices of all kinds.

“It’s just like any startup of any one company, except you’re doing it on a grand scale with the whole sector,” says Walt Hutchings, managing director of investment and trade at Invest Ottawa and a board member at Medical Devices Alliance Canada, which helped get the new venture off the ground.

The centre will employ hundreds of people across the country, with the goal of increasing Canada’s share of a worldwide industry that generates an estimated $335 billion annually. About 20 of those employees will be based in Ottawa at the outset, but high-tech executives in the city believe the centre’s long-term impact on the region will be far greater.

“I think it’s going to be great for Canada as a whole and for Ottawa in particular,” says Mr. Hutchings.

The centre will help draw new talent to the region, he says, which in turn will attract more investors and entrepreneurs looking to carve out a niche in the medical devices sphere.

“The bottom line to me is always jobs and investment and employment of highly skilled people,” Mr. Hutchings says.

As for how many jobs the centre could ultimately create directly and indirectly, he says the sky is the limit.

“It really depends on the technologies, the devices that are actually commercialized,” he says. “If something became a huge, new device internationally … it could become a huge seller. And then you have to think, OK, where would those devices be manufactured and are they going to be exported from Canada? I would say it’ll start with dozens (of jobs) and hopefully move to hundreds and hopefully move to thousands down the road.”

The life sciences sector as a whole, which includes medical device manufacturers such as Nordion, Abbott Point of Care and DNA Genotek, employs more than 8,500 people at 140 companies in the region, according to Invest Ottawa.

Heart institute CEO Tofy Mussivand, who will oversee the new facility, predicts medical devices will be a $1-trillion industry within a decade. He says Ottawa – and Canada – have the infrastructure, resources and highly skilled workforce to be a much bigger player on the world stage.

“Canada has many strengths that have not been capitalized for medical devices,” he says.

Local industry leaders agree the centre could have a major impact on the city’s economy. A spokesperson for Nordion praised the decision to combine “research and innovation” at the facility, while others echo Mr. Hutchings’ sentiments, saying it will help incubate a new generation of engineers, scientists and other highly skilled workers.

“This initiative will help Ottawa to continue to be an important centre of scientific innovation and attract top talent to the region,” says Sean Tomalty, plant director at Abbott Point of Care.

The project could also have spinoffs that extend far beyond the medical devices sector, Mr. Hutchings says.

Just as many bright young employees at places such as Bell Northern Research ultimately left to form the likes of Corel and Mitel in the 1970s and ’80s, helping fuel Ottawa’s original tech boom, a new crop of talent attracted to the medical devices field could similarly launch its own ventures in sectors as diverse as defence and digital media, he says.

The medical devices centre is one of two Ottawa-based projects to receive CECR funding.

The federal government also announced the city will be home to a new Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks. The facility, which will receive $11.7 million in federal cash over the next five years, will offer testing labs, support and mentoring to businesses in the information and communications technologies sector and will promote the development of new cloud-based services.

Invest Ottawa plans to announce more details on the new centre of excellence later this fall.

With two of the five new federally funded projects based here, Mr. Hutchings says he believes the region has regained its standing as a tech leader.

“I’ve been saying this for the last six months or a year, but I think Ottawa is back – especially in the private sector, the knowledge-based companies, the high-tech area,” he says. “If you look at all of the success of the major communications companies, all of the new companies that have grown up and been successful, and then you look at things like this, it says to me that Ottawa is really back to where it was at its peak as far as the high-tech business is.”