There’s been so much going on in East-Coast-Startup-Land recently that it would be difficult to pick out just one good news story of the year. But the folks at BioNova believe they have one. It began with a seeming disaster.
Last week, BioNova, the life sciences organization for Nova Scotia, celebrated its achievements of the past year with a great reception that had the oxymoronic title “Good News & Blues.” The idea: to discuss the wonderful things that have happened in the past year while listening to—and I’m not making this up—blues music played by members of the life sciences community. The music was really good, especially ACOA’s band led by Chris Brooks.
As for the Good News Award, it went to the way that the closure of the National Research Council’s bio-imaging centre in Halifax was transformed into the creation of the Biomedical Translational Imaging Centre, or Biotic. It’s the new imaging centre in the city. To understand why it’s such an important story, a bit of context may be necessary.
Halifax punches way above its weight in bio-imaging—X-rays, MRIs, and the like. The NRC, Dalhousie University, Capital Health, IWK, the ACOA, and others have spent a decade channeling more than $50 million into these facilities, and the number of people working in the imaging segment has grown from three to 50. It improved health care and research opportunities in the region. And it led to the creation of some great young companies, such as Mindful Scientific.
Mindful, which is developing a portable device that can diagnose head trauma instantly, was selected as one of the six start-ups in the first cohort of Canadian Tech Accelerator in Boston this year, and CEO Ying Tam has so far dazzled the New Englanders. In fact, last month Mindful Scientific won the Business Pitch Competition at Harvard and Tam won the IBM Mentoring Day in Massachusetts. This month, Mindful was one of five companies accepted into the Boston’s TiE Challenge accelerator. These U.S. national awards indicate the superb quality of work done in bio-imaging in Halifax, partly because there are great facilities here.
“I often compare a standard MRI to a Toyota Camry or a Honda Civic: a dependable car that gets you from A to B,” Ryan D’Arcy told me in an interview last summer. “What we have in imaging in Halifax is Formula 1.”
D’Arcy, who worked for years as a senior research officer with the NRC in Halifax, was the godfather of the city’s digital imaging until he left last year for a posting with Simon Frasier University in Vancouver. Then in October, the NRC announced it would be shutting down its imaging centre in Halifax. It was a shot to the heart for the entire biotech sector.
But the shot did not prove fatal. “Once word of the impending closure got out, it seemed like the entire community came together to find a solution,” says Patrick McGrath, the vice-president of research and innovation for Capital Health and the IWK. “Local and international industry, several departments, faculties at Dalhousie, and clinicians at both hospitals and government agencies worked on a plan to keep this valued resource in Halifax.”
There was a coordinated effort to find funding so the centre would continue, though not as part of the NRC. The new partners became the Nova Scotia Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation, Dalhousie, BioNova, Capital Health, and the IWK. The NRC also helped in arranging for the transfer of staff and equipment.
The upside today, mushy as it may sound, there was a great deal of co-operation in the rescue, which sets a good example in a city known for its fractious nature. It is a story certainly worthy of the Good News Award.