When the federal government announced funding in February for Charlottetown-based Natural Products Canada, it was the culmination of several years of effort by the PEI life sciences community.
The PEI BioAlliance first applied to create a natural products commercialization centre after the federal government launched its Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research, or CECR, program in 2007. But it was rejected at the time because the original proposal was too local. So it began to work with partners from across the country and came up with a proposal that won the backing of Ottawa. It’s the first time a Maritime proposal received CECR funding.
“What we’re really good at is bringing our local networks around the best idea and developing a strong structure in terms of design,” said BioAlliance Executive Director Rory Francis in an interview. “We have a very credible name across the country and we were able to bring in partners from Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan to make it happen.”
In February, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Navdeep Bains announced that the federal government would contribute $14 million to Natural Products Canada, which would be headquartered in Charlottetown. While the BioAlliance would serve as the Atlantic Canadian hub for the centre, the partnership includes AgWest Bio in Saskatchewan, the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization and the Institute for Nutrition and Functional Foods in Quebec. The federal contribution will be matched by over $10 million from industry and other sources, for total funding of more than $24 million over the next five years.
The Natural Products Centre will be headed by CEO Shelley King, who previously worked with Synapse (the tech transfer office at the University of P.E.I.) and Genome Atlantic. She and her eight staff members will work with companies that have products based on natural substances and need to bring them to market.
It’s a project that has Francis and others in the Atlantic Canadian life sciences community excited, and here’s why.
First, the sector it works in is hot. There’s a push from consumers and government for businesses to offer more products made from sustainable materials, including those drawn from nature. That offers a huge opportunity to study how to extract useful chemicals and materials from natural sources, and to apply them to products ranging from food to cosmetics to agricultural inputs to drugs to animal health products. The list is endless.
Second, by working with partners from across the country, the companies in the NPC program will have access to a tremendous network. All four of the founding institutions bring with them vast groups of contacts in business, government and academia. That means a company in Atlantic Canada entering the program will have access to researchers, labs, investors, mentors and potential customers from across the country and beyond.
And third, the centre has the ability to finance companies, but the competition is tough. That means the companies interested in gaining the funding will have to up their game, which should benefit the entire sector.
“I get excited because the bar to get to CECR funding for that program is really, really high,” said Francis. It is the second time in three years that Charlottetown has won a federal competition to offer programing for life sciences companies.
In 2014, the PEI BioAlliance won funding from the National Research Council’s Canadian Accelerator and Incubator Program. That created Emergence, a life sciences incubator that is now working with 22 to 24 companies.
“NPC can do a bunch of things that Emergence can’t – it’s sort of Emergence on steroids,” said Francis. “The nature of these CECRs is they have to be sustainable over a period of time. … so [the member companies] have to have a stream of income.”
And Francis believes the NPC will be adept at helping companies develop those streams of income because so much of the expertise is drawn from private business. It will have academic partners like University of New Brunswick Saint John, UPEI and universities in other regions, but it’s led by private business people.
“Most of these CECRs tend to be academically led,” said Francis. “They’re known for great science and academic research. In this case, we’ve kind of turned this around – you haven’t heard too much about the academic component because this was really very much a private sector-led initiative.”