Putting Calgary on the global life sciences map

April 19, 2022
Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund Life Sciences Technology
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A challenge startups in the life sciences sector face is the difficulty accessing labs and equipment, which can impact their ability to accelerate and commercialize emerging technology. As one of Canada’s most innovative and business-friendly cities, Calgary is home to many ground-breaking business incubators and accelerators that advance companies at all stages of growth. This is especially true of the Life Sciences Innovation Hub (LSI Hub), located in the University Innovation Quarter on the University of Calgary campus. 

“We meet people and companies where they’re at,” said Nima Najand, PhD, Director of the LSI Hub. “From very early stage to companies with revenues and scale.”

With 112,000 sq. ft. of office and lab space, specialized equipment and services, the LSI Hub provides valuable entrepreneurial and business development mentorship and support for students, researchers, and emerging companies looking to bring their life sciences products and services to market.

Beyond the space to grow, the LSI Hub is a community. Activated by Innovate Calgary, the programming offered ranges from coaching and talent development to guidance on intellectual property management and new venture creation.

Partnered with the University of Calgary, the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF) provided funding for a large-scale project to support accelerator programming and direct labour costs at the LSI Hub.

“OCIF was instrumental in funding the programming offered at the LSI Hub and the expert personnel within it,” said Najand. “We simply couldn’t have opened the Hub without their funding and input.”

In the life sciences sector, commercialization can take upwards of 20 years. Without the right types of labs, programming and collaborative workspaces, this timeline can be even longer. An accelerated commercialization timeline from conception to project testing and finally market release can be the difference between life or death for emerging research. As new technologies and innovations in other jurisdictions are released, it is a race towards first market penetration.

The LSI Hub provides companies with an accessible and cost-effective space for research and development of new products and technologies, while encouraging collaboration with experienced and respected mentors and trained technicians. It is part of a greater innovation ecosystem that supports the translation of lab-based research to real-world impact. Both university researchers and external companies are encouraged to use the LSI Hub.

“Before the LSI Hub, life sciences companies really had nowhere to go. We offer them a hosted community of experts that they can’t find anywhere else,” said Najand.

Additional funding for the Hub was provided through donations to the University, thereby creating UCeed, an investment fund that funnels direct investments into companies to foster economic and talent diversification within Calgary and Alberta. UCeed aligns perfectly with the University of Calgary’s focus on entrepreneurial thinking, invention and innovation.

The LSI Hub focuses on the following categories of companies:

  • Digital health
  • Medical devices, diagnostics, and therapeutics
  • Agriculture and veterinary medicine
  • Energy, cleantech and environmental solutions employing life sciences approaches
  • Laboratory research tools and reagents
  • Manufacturing and industrial application

The team at the LSI Hub is working hard to move Calgary into a position of greater awareness. Since the LSI Hub launched in 2019, it has achieved a 95.7 per cent occupancy rate. While many of the companies resident at the LSI Hub originated in Calgary, the Hub has been able to attract a number of national and international companies to relocate to Calgary and Najand hopes to recruit additional global start-ups in the years ahead.

International and pan-Canadian outreach is helped by the fact that Calgary is an easy sell to many companies looking to develop life sciences products.

“Calgary is the right-sized city, with excellent transit and easy commutes,” Najand explains. “It’s a much better place to raise a family than a big city like Toronto.”

In addition, The Life Sciences Fellowship program, run out of the LSI Hub, has drawn in plenty of local and international talent. The program takes early-stage start-ups with technology-driven solutions and provides funding, technology development resources, professional development training and expert support.  

Programs and spaces like this are part of the reason Calgary is a home to people and companies who embrace advanced technology and digital transformation to help solve the world’s biggest challenges –the vision of the economic strategy Calgary in the New Economy

Take Tactile Orthopaedicswho moved its start-up into the Hub in July 2019 and is one of the original tenants of the LSI Hub. The company, headed by Robert Spence, creates anatomically exact models of human joints to allow surgeons and surgical students the ability to teach and practice surgical techniques before operating on live patients. The LSI Hub has allowed the Tactile team to develop a prototype and manufacture its models all within one space.

“The biggest advantage is the LSI Hub’s proximity to Foothills Hospital. The anatomic and kinematic realism of our models is entirely due to the many interactions we had with our design surgeon, Dr. Ryan Martin, which was only possible because we are so close to the Foothills. We would not be a company today without that interaction,” said Tactile co-founder Dr. Carolyn Anglin.

“We have also taken good advantage of the Innovate Calgary Expert Advisor programIn some cases, a single comment or a single hour with an expert has changed the direction of our company or made things possible that were not possible before. We have also enjoyed exchanging stories and experiences with other start-ups at the LSI Hub.”

Much of the collaboration between members in the LSI Hub is organic. Companies working alongside each other provide advice and knowledge to each other, creating a strong community.

Each person brings their own knowledge and perspective, which can be invaluable to another organization just starting out. That community extends far past the confines of the LSI Hub building to the greater entrepreneurial community in Calgary – where bright minds and big ideas converge to solve global challenges.  

The Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund was created as a catalyst to attract investment, drive innovation, and spur transformative economic development in the city. OCIF has made a wide range of public and private investments that drive economic growth, job creation, and ecosystem development, positioning Calgary to lead digital transformation across our key sectors. 

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