The future of life sciences is bright in Mississauga, Ontario. One of the foremost objectives of Mississauga’s recently-crafted economic development strategy is to “build a cohesive life sciences community by sustaining an ongoing dialogue among leaders in academia, industry, and healthcare.” The city’s life sciences sector, once recognized mainly as only a pharma hub, has grown over the past several decades to be the second largest life sciences cluster in Canada.City leaders recognize the sector’s value to the economy and community, as well as the growth potential, and are taking the right steps to ensure that Mississauga becomes not only a national life sciences powerhouse but a global leader. They are looking at international life sciences hubs like San Francisco, New York City, and Singapore as their benchmarks as they work to grow their talent pool, drive innovation, and foster new ideas in research and development.
According to the Director of Economic Development, Susan Amring, “The strategy itself, because we engaged our life sciences community, makes it a real grassroots understanding. We didn’t have someone hired to build us a strategy and hand it to us; it really was about a collaborative community effort to understand issues, challenges and opportunities. According to the city’s Life Sciences Consultant, Avtar Sodhi, the life sciences development strategy that the city of Mississauga has put into action this year is the first of its kind. Mississauga is strengthening the sector at a community level.
It’s exactly that level of detailed, focused attention that has made Mississauga the landing spot for hundreds of businesses in this economic cluster. Over 430 life sciences companies with 22,000 employees see the city as the ideal place for their businesses to grow.
Life sciences is a knowledge-based sector, and future success and strength is contingent on access to a talented, educated, and a passionate work force. Mississauga’s talent pool is deep. Around two-thirds of the population has post-secondary education, which Sodhi named as one of the definitive keys to success in this sector. As laid out in the economic development strategy, building a cohesive life sciences community starts with the relationship and communication between leaders in academia, industry, and healthcare. When the Economic Development Office was planning their life sciences strategy, they called on stakeholders from the surrounding post-secondary and secondary institutions for input. Life sciences companies were able to have direct dialogue with the education representatives about what the current and future needs are for the life sciences business sector.
As a result of this collaboration, academic institutions are working to meet the education and training needs of the life sciences businesses. For example, University of Toronto Mississauga has developed specialized life sciences programs, like the Masters of Biotechnology, Masters of Innovation Management, and Sustainability Management. Secondary institutions are emphasizing STEMM courses as they help guide students in possible career paths. Susan Amring said, “We’ve worked with our business community to try and figure out what they need in the future. Our education stakeholders are then able to help develop that talent pool.” This relationship between the business community and the academic community is helping to create a uniquely prepared pool of talent that is equipped to drive the constant innovation that a vibrant life sciences sector demands.
Mississauga offers locational advantages suited to serve that market. The city is home to an international airport—an important consideration for any international company considering investment in the city. There is access to Toronto and the GTA through the seven major highways that connect to the city, which are vital for both road-based shipping as well as commuter accessibility. In addition, Mississauga is only a 90-minute drive from the U.S. border, extending the market access across national borders.
Many established life sciences companies are taking advantage of the prime location. Mississauga is the top location of all major Canadian cities for life sciences companies with 100 to 500 employees. But as the city looks to round out and develop the life sciences community, attracting early-stage and medium-sized enterprises is one of their key objectives moving forward.
As city, business, and academic leaders continue to build the life sciences at a community level, another important step is creating an ecosystem of communication and cooperation at all levels of the sector. Sodhi envisions a virtual hub where professionals and businesses can collaborate. A focus will be on some of the areas which are growth opportunities—digital health, rare disease, biotech, genetics, personalized medicine where we really want to have industry leaders come together and drive the discussion. One of the key findings we learned during the development of the strategy is the opportunity for the life sciences community in general to collaborate and have some kind of online hub or virtual place where they can share their ideas, knowledge and those kinds of things.”
One aspect Mississauga is looking to strengthen, as they strategize for continued growth, is venture capital. There are already hundreds of companies making great use of the city’s infrastructure and talent resources, but the city wants to position itself as an ideal landing spot for early-stage companies looking to take the next step in growing their business. That phase of growth is often the most difficult one for any company, as they work to commercialize and establish a steady revenue stream. Nearby, Toronto is home to several incubators, like MaRS and JLABS, and Mississauga wants to attract budding life sciences companies looking to move past the startup phase and transition into prototype development or clinical testing. The infrastructure is there, but more capital is needed to help those companies grow. Amring says that is something Mississauga’s plan will address moving forward. She knows that Mississauga is a prime landing spot, but taking that next step is a struggle for early-stage businesses. It’s not a question of attracting startups and early-stage businesses; it’s a matter of being equipped to grow them. “[W]e’ve seen companies that wanted to land here in Mississauga. We’ve had some instances where they’ve co-located with larger company that had extra space, but it’s that issue of having a location where they can start to see themselves grow. We have such a large regional area that it just depends on where they can find the right support…. We want to be that support in Mississauga.”
For Sodhi, it’s all about reaching potential investors with a message of Mississauga’s history of success in life sciences, as well as the potential of the marketplace: “Venture capital comes when we start telling people what this market is all about…. Ontario offers as much equal footing opportunity as New York or California, so that’s the story we really need to tell them.” That opportunity to join a vibrant life sciences community is attractive at a local, national, and international level. The difference with Mississauga is the growth potential; there is already a well-established community in the life sciences cluster, but with the city’s intense focus on growing this sector, there is a prime opportunity for investment.