For the first time in its history, Life Science Nation’s popular Redefining Early Stage Investments (RESI) conference has been staged outside the U.S.
Organizers chose the MaRS Centre in Toronto to host the event – and it provided a potent sign of the city’s growing stature as a biotech hotspot. More than 220 investors, who together managed over $5 billion in investable assets, came to explore the opportunities among Canadian startups and meet the 200-plus fundraising executives present.
RESI, which is held every three months, usually moves between the biotech powerhouses of San Francisco, Boston and The Mayo Clinic in Houston. Its arrival at MaRS is a reflection of rapidly growing investor interest in Canadian biotech. In the last three years, flows of venture capital into Canadian biotech companies have more than doubled, to hit $650 million in 2015 and the sector is second only to ICT in winning investment dollars.
Sam Ifergan, president of investment firm iGan Partners, was bullish on the health innovation scene in southern Ontario as a whole, saying his company has had a “fantastic experience” with the sector. He pointed out the strength of the innovation in the region, in particular the role played by universities and hospitals in spinning out startup companies.
“The ecosystem in Toronto and Ontario is very strong for these companies,” he said. “There’s IP, particularly, in imaging technology in the Toronto area.”
Some of the IP drawing interest at the conference was from a venture called Nora. Not a medical imaging firm, Nora tackles an altogether different problem: snoring. The company produces a sleek bedside device that detects the early signs of snoring and activates a small inflatable under the pillow to gently reposition the head and reopen the airway.
The company has already racked up $1 million in pre-orders is looking to close an investment round in the fall. For co-founder Behzad Hariri, RESI was an opportunity to demonstrate his product’s value to a wide range of investors.
“Many of the investors here are interested in pharma companies, but when we finish our pitch, a lot of them are interested,” he said. “A lot of people have wanted follow up meetings with us.”
Nora was one of the companies at the MaRS Healthkick Innovation Challenge area of RESI. A kind of marketplace for investors to meet new startup entrepreneurs, Healthkick showcased 30 of the region’s most promising biotech ventures and invited attendees to vote for the best using “RESI dollars.”
The companies exhibiting gave a snapshot of some of the trends in life science innovation coming out of the Toronto area. Imaging technology was well represented in Perimeter, which has developed an Optical Tissue Imaging System that provides surgeons with real-time visualization of sub-surface structures in excised tissues (it received FDA approval in May) and Pathcore, which creates software for viewing and automatically analyzing whole-slide images to improve cancer diagnostics.
The companies present also reflected current growth in patient-centric devices for improving diagnosis and monitoring in areas where current practices are expensive and cumbersome.
BresoTec was at RESI to showcase its innovative home sleep apnea test. Its cordless wearable mask detects sound and movement and produces a clinical report that has been shown in trials to have a 95 per cent correlation with in-lab tests. Julie Brogren, chief operating officer, was busy collecting “RESI dollars” (BresoTec came second in the voting) but was also optimistic that exposure at the conference might lead to more real investment dollars further down the road. The company is currently raising a series AA round and is moving towards FDA approval.
“RESI is an opportunity to start a dialogue and introduce our product to potential investors,” said Brogren.
Though the conference brought together ventures, investors and speakers from diverse fields, one theme was consistently raised: Toronto’s innovation district, in which MaRS, the University of Toronto and several leading research hospitals are clustered, is a major asset. Over a billion dollars is invested each year in health research and innovation at those institutions grouped around a few city blocks, creating a concentration of talent, scientific infrastructure and business skill. At a panel on growing Canadian biotech Stefan Larson, CEO of therapeutic antibody company Northern Biologics called the innovation district his number one asset for recruiting talent: “The universities, the hospitals and this building [MaRS] being at the crux of it all, that’s a great story to tell.”
As the arrival of RESI showed, that story is now reaching larger audience than ever. And they like what they hear.