Ottawa biotech incubator gets $5.5M boost from federal government

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The University of Ottawa's Advanced Medical Research Centre is scheduled to open in 2026.

An organization aimed at incubating Ottawa biotechnology startups says it’s poised to help several promising companies commercialize their products after securing a multimillion-dollar grant from the federal government.

Capital BioVentures received $5.5 million in non-repayable funding this week from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. The money, which will be disbursed over the next five years, will help provide local biotech startups with scaleup capital as well as lab space and business advisory services.

Capital BioVentures was launched last fall by former executives of Ottawa-born biotech trailblazer Turnstone Biologics and researchers from local universities. The not-for-profit organization says it’s identified about half a dozen candidates for the first tranche of funding and expects to start publicly announcing the recipients in the next few weeks.

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“The idea really is to try to alleviate as many burdens as we can so these really innovative people can focus on their product development and growing their business,” said Jeff Smirle, the director of external affairs for Carleton University’s Faculty of Science and the new organization’s chief operating officer.

“We have a long track record of developing really amazing biotech innovations. The key is keeping them here.”

Smirle, who holds a PhD in cell biology and anatomy from McGill University, says Capital BioVentures plans to zero in on startups that are in the second stage of their growth cycle.

He describes such ventures as those that are already incorporated, employ about one to five people, possess at least some intellectual property and ideally have a bit of cash in the bank.

Capital BioVentures will provide up to $100,000 in non-dilutive funding to qualifying companies. Startups will also be eligible to receive up to 400 hours of advisory services from experienced biotechnology executives in areas such as fundraising, safeguarding IP and adhering to government regulations. 

In addition, free access to cutting-edge research and diagnostic equipment will be available for companies that need it. Capital BioVentures says Carleton University, La Cité and the Montfort Hospital have agreed to provide a total of about 6,000 square feet of lab space to the startups.

“We’re going to tailor our support packages based on the needs of the companies,” Smirle explained.

Experienced executives

Experts who will be lending their guidance to the capital’s next crop of up-and-coming biotech firms include Maura Campbell, Chantal Martin and Julia Pomoransky.

All three were executives at Turnstone Biologics, a firm co-founded by renowned Ottawa Hospital researcher John Bell that develops groundbreaking treatments using the body’s own immune system to battle cancer.

Like a number of other promising Canadian biotech ventures, Turnstone Biologics eventually pulled up stakes and moved its operations south of the border, where most of its investors are located. 

Turnstone, which received more than $170 million in venture capital and now trades on the Nasdaq exchange, vacated its former lab at Carleton University last summer. 

That space is now occupied by Virica Biotech, a growing Ottawa-based startup that received a $1.5-million loan this week from the same federal agency that is helping fund Capital BioVentures.

Virica founder and CEO Jean-Simon Diallo says Ottawa’s biotech sector is in dire need of the kind of support that Capital BioVentures is now equipped to offer.

He says he’s optimistic the organization will bring together leading research, education and economic development organizations such as Invest Ottawa, the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the capital’s post-secondary schools to create a “collaborative approach that has been a little bit lacking in this city” when it comes to tackling a chronic shortage of funding and R&D facilities.

“They’ll be able to work with all the relevant partners in the city … to really solve problems for small, emerging companies in terms of space, capital and actual know-how,” Diallo said.

Smirle sees strong signals that things are already changing for the better. 

Strengthening ecosystem

He points to the new biotherapeutics manufacturing hub that’s expected to be part of The Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic campus when it opens in 2028, as well as the state-of-the-art $280-million medical research facility now under construction on the University of Ottawa as examples of infrastructure that will strengthen the local biotech ecosystem.

Using a sports analogy, Smirle describes Capital BioVentures as a “farm system” designed to nurture young biotech businesses and prepare them for life in the entrepreneurial big leagues.

He said the group will be the “perfect feeder opportunity” for The Ottawa Hospital’s Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre, which specializes in developing treatments that use cells, genes, viruses and other biological materials to fight cancer, autoimmune diseases, heart disease and other conditions

“As the BMC expands more and more, we want to be developing the homegrown companies that become clients and require service at the BMC,” Smirle explained.

Still, the scientist says more needs to be done to ensure Ottawa-born biotech ventures can remain viable in their hometown. 

He said Capital BioVentures is talking with “a variety of different venture capital funds” about stepping up financial support for local companies that otherwise might be tempted to follow a money trail that more often than not leads south of the Canada-U.S. border. 

“We need Canadian investors to invest in our local companies and keep them in the region,” Smirle said. “Otherwise, there’s going to be that slow creep that naturally happens when more and more of the investors are American. Companies slowly but surely creep across the border, and that’s something that we’re trying to avoid.”

Smirle remains hopeful. He said the National Capital Region’s biotech sector boasts “some really promising anchor companies” such as Virica and Spiderwort, a startup incubated at the University of Ottawa that uses cellulose-based biomaterials as scaffolds to help regenerate soft human tissue.

“I think we have some really promising anchor companies in the region,” he said. “I think it’s our job to find the next Virica, the next Spiderwort, the next Turnstone. That’s what we’re going to spend the next five years doing.”

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