Officials seek to build up Ottawa’s burgeoning biotech sector

treehouse
Julia Slanina, CEO of Treehouse Digital Health, a member of Invest Ottawa's new health-tech accelerator program. Photo by Mark Holleron

Compared with their higher-profile cousins in software, Ottawa’s tech companies devoted to medical therapies and devices face an uphill battle for funding and market penetration. This week, OBJ is looking at how they’re trying to overcome those obstacles.

As Ottawa’s bioscience companies face hurdle after hurdle charging into a heavily regulated industry, local economic development agencies are doing their best to help give the city’s fledgling biotech and medical devices sector a leg up. 

Invest Ottawa, for example, recently teamed up with the Ottawa Hospital to launch a 10-week program aimed at giving digital health startups advice and mentorship on navigating their products to market. 

The program’s first cohort of 16 startups – 11 of which were founded by women – is now learning the ins and outs of landing funding, feeling its way through the industry’s labyrinth of regulations and procurement requirements and fine-tuning its products.

“Health-tech in Ottawa is not a super well-known sector,” says Julia Slanina, one of the entrepreneurs taking part in the program. 

The former medical student is the founder and CEO of Treehouse Digital Health, a platform launched last year that aims to connect patients with doctors and other medical professionals via mobile devices. The six-person Kanata company is aiming to bring its technology to market this summer, and Slanina says the new pre-accelerator program has been a valuable source of inspiration and support.

“For me, it was really about networking, about being with like-minded colleagues,” explains the Carleton University graduate, who is bootstrapping the venture herself. “It was just more of connecting with colleagues, connecting with community members and seeing how we can provide a really good solution for everyone.”

Invest Ottawa has also tried to smooth the path for biotech entrepreneurs in other ways. In late 2018, the organization brought Janet Whitley, who spent nearly a decade working for the FDA as a regulatory review officer, on board to advise startups on what it takes to meet the federal agency’s strict standards for approving new products.

“We’re reacting to the market,” says Nick Quain, Invest Ottawa’s vice-president of venture development.

Success not assured

Whether any of these ventures morph into Canada’s next great biotech colossus remains to be seen. The sector’s biggest players have massive upsides, but success is never assured. 

Spartan Bioscience CEO Paul Lem, for one, is hopeful. Thanks in part to the world-renowned knowledge incubators such as the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, he thinks the nation’s capital is well-positioned to develop the talent and commercial opportunities to become a force in biotech. He also says the city’s business community as a whole tends to warmly embrace its up-and-comers, a key catalyst to any fledgling firm’s growth.

“We nurture our entrepreneurs, and I’ve felt that,” the Toronto native says. “The community’s really gotten behind us. Over the last 20 years, Ottawa has nurtured me as an entrepreneur, and that’s what’s led to our success at Spartan.”

Others say Ottawa needs to make a massive investment in its biotech R&D infrastructure if the city wants to truly shine on the global stage. 

“There’s not a lot of room for incubation of companies in the universities and research institutes,” says Ottawa medical researcher and Virica Biotech founder Jean-Simon Diallo. He recently joined Invest Ottawa’s accelerator and maintains a lab at the University of Ottawa but notes there’s always a tug-of-war for resources between researchers who are doing purely academic work and those looking to commercialize their ideas.

“Space is at a premium, and so if the institutes start favouring biotech space because they pay more overhead, then that’s a challenge for the academics,” he explains.

Still, he thinks all the elements are there for Ottawa to come into its own as a biotech hub – if it can continue to build up the resources, facilities and intellectual power the sector requires.

“If the opportunity was there to stay in Ottawa, certainly I would love that,” Diallo says. “We want to grow a biotech industry in Ottawa, and there’s significant potential for that. It’s going to take some time, but I think in terms of the will, I think it’s really there.”

Quain wholeheartedly agrees.

“It’s amazing when you sort of look underneath the hood of this city to see how much firepower we have in terms of the researchers, the academics and the world-renowned experts,” he says. “If we can get more and more of them moving towards commercializing some of this groundbreaking research, it could really become an even bigger part of this city’s ecosystem.”