Alberta turning its attention to life sciences and technology commercialization
September 15, 2000
Venture capital, life sciences and technology mentoring are at the top of the Alberta Science and Innovation (ASI) department's agenda as the province seeks ways to bolster its participation in the knowledge-based economy. Awash in surplus cash and eager to take the lead in several niche technology sectors, Alberta is pitching its advantages to select audiences in Canada and the US as part of a promotional campaign to lure provincial natives back home to work and invest. And it's also prepared to use some of its surplus to make the jurisdiction more attractive, by strengthening its research and innovation system.
In an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, ASI minister Dr Lorne Taylor outlined several of the new initiatives that he's pushing within government and said the life sciences industry is the next sector Alberta will be developing, following his department's success in promoting information and communications technologies (ICT). Taylor was in Ottawa as part of a four-city tour trumpeting the so-called Alberta advantage - low taxation, an educated work force and heavy investment in R&D. In addition to the nation's capital, Taylor also visited Toronto and will be travelling to Los Angeles and Palo Alto CA for the same purpose - to convince Alberta natives and others, that the province offers much more than booming oil revenues, right wing politicians and the Calgary Stampede.
Technology mentoring is probably the most advanced of the new initiatives, with an agreement pending between the ASI and Montreal-based Inno-centre. The private, non-profit technology mentoring and consulting firm with a strong track record in commercialization has already entered an agreement with the National Research Council (NRC) and is seeking to establish a national network (R$, December 16/98)
"It's an incredible success story. They have had 122 companies in 12 years go through (the technology mentoring process) and there are only six that are no longer operating," says Taylor. "It's really going to speed up our technology commercialization. What Inno-centre does is essentially provide a gating or screening process for the venture capitalists. They have credibility with the venture capital community."
The prospect of having Inno-centre locate in Alberta has attracted the attention of existing technology commercialization organizations, which recently banded together to form the Alberta Technology Commercialization Network (ACTN) . Comprised of University Technologies Inc (Univ of Calgary), the Univ of Alberta's industry liaison office and the Alberta Research Council, ATCN members are hoping that by feeding promising technology through Inno-centre, companies will emerge at the other end with venture capital commitments and a better shot at success in the marketplace. "We're trying to get the whole range from the universities to technology commercialization, developing a stream process that works," says taylor, adding that the fact that the province does not offer R&D tax credits is not an issue within the venture capital community.
LIFE SCIENCES STRATEGY UNDER DEVELOPMENT
A life sciences strategy is currently Taylor's top priority and it comes on the heels of the positive experience surrounding the development of a similar framework for ICT. Taylor says a draft report is about eight weeks away, after which a consultation process will begin, leading to a full blown strategy early next year. ASI hired Dr Larry Milligan, outgoing VP research at the Univ of Guelph, to develop the strategy in consultation with Alberta stakeholders. Taylor is hoping that a well-conceived strategy with a handful of strong recommendations stands a good chance of attracting Cabinet endorsement and could be funded as early as the next provincial Budget early next year.
"I don't want a report with 150 goals and sets of objectives," he says. "We need to have this kind of pot of money for research and if we get three or four specific objectives, we can cost them and I can sell them. We're planning to commit some dollars in my budget to this."
For Milligan, the opportunity to work on the early stages of the strategy was a revelation in terms of exposing the province's strength in life sciences, particularly human health and medicine, agriculture and forestry.
"There's a very strong breadth of research underpinning the life sciences, and a strong existing capability of moving new research into practice," says Milligan. "They have a tremendous vision, understanding and enthusiasm for a province-wide research strategy, based on strong fundamental science through to commercialization. It's been a joy to work on it."
SUPPLY OF VENTURE CAPITAL NOT SO EASILY SOLVED
More problematic is Alberta's weak track record in attracting venture capital (VC) for young companies, particularly in the high technology sector. Alberta commands between 13-15% of the national gross domestic product, but attracts only 2-3% of venture capital, severely skewing the process of technology commercialization. Taylor is currently consulting widely with venture capitalists in the province, across Canada and internationally. He also recently attended a VC conference in Banff, followed by discussions in Calgary and came away with a firm belief that Alberta has the requisite science to attract VC, but that an adequate supply of human expertise is also required.
To that end, Taylor has been travelling widely to promote Alberta strengths in science and technology, complete with a nifty S&T video and new publications, hoping to convince non-Albertans and former Albertans alike to locate in the province.
"I don't know what we should do yet but we do have the technology to commercialize. That was made very clear to me," he says. "Is there institutional money available - pension fund money available in Alberta like in Ontario? Not at present, so how do we make that available, or is it even desirable to make it available."
WESTERN GENOME NODE
Taylor is also working to convince Genome Canada and the NRC that Alberta should be home to the Western regional node for Genome Canada, focusing in proteomic. An NRC proposal last year to establish an institute in the province was not funded, and Taylor says its incumbent on the NRC to provide some level of funding. "Quite frankly if the NRC isn't prepared to come with, say, a $20-million presence, we'll do it ourselves. I understand the politics of it. We don't elect too many Liberals."