Whether you know Mississauga as “Pill Hill” or “Pharma Alley”, you’ll know that there is some major work going on that has created one of the largest life sciences clusters in North America. Affectionately nicknamed by its residents, Mississauga is tirelessly growing and continuing to build this recently acclaimed second-largest Canadian life sciences hub. The city has an abundance of researchers, scientists, technicians, students and skilled labourers that encompass this booming market.
However, it didn’t just happen overnight.
“There is a lot of first-class research centres around here,” said Ronnie Miller, president and CEO of Hoffmann-La Roche Limited (Roche Canada). “There is Sunnybrook, the University Health Network, UofT, Guelph, and McMaster. So, I think all these things together, plus the number of companies that are based here and the number of graduates, quick access to entertainment, the airport, and a skilled labour force make Mississauga the perfect place to be.”
At least one of these institutions has forged a successful partnership with several of the companies that reside in the Mississauga region. The University of Toronto launched their Masters of Biotechnology program at its Mississauga campus back in 2001 with 100 per cent co-op placement since inception. The university has been working closely with Roche Canada since their first cohort of students in 2002.
“The MBiotech program is one of the most successful and long-standing partnerships,” commented Julia Biondi, human resources business partner, attraction and sourcing site head, Roche Canada. “The program at UofT is instrumental to building students industry skills, as well as their leadership skills. Roche prides itself in terms of the types of work that we give the students for when they come to work on internships with us. They get really closely connected in the business.”
Roche is a global organization founded in Basel, Switzerland, by Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche over 115 years ago. It has established five global product development sites and has based one of those in Mississauga. According to Lee Rammage, senior corporate relations manager, Roche Canada, “We made a strong argument for Mississauga, as opposed to any other city around the world. We made a pretty compelling case.” Originally, the company was based out of Montreal but moved its base of operations to Mississauga back in 1986. It has been an innovative pharmaceutical company in Canada since 1931.
The number of full-time paid co-op opportunities for students every year at Roche is on the rise but is currently set for thirteen placements for the 2018 year. The co-op duration is for a full one-year to optimize student learning and incorporate them further into the team, with a possibility of extending the co-op’s contract or leading to a full-time job. The two-year MBiotech program binds together the practical and hands-on learning to acquire a job in the biotechnology sector.
“The biggest thing to me is that the experience is invaluable, and not only that but the way the MBiotech program has worked with these partnering companies is that the co-op is paid,” said past student and now specialist representative at Roche, Kasia Rachniowski. “I felt like an employee, not like a co-op; and the most important thing was that people really valued your contribution. You weren’t just a student that was working there to get experience.”
Roche Canada employs over 850 people at their location in Mississauga. Its expansion to include a product development division in 2011 has resulted in the addition of roughly 200 more skilled labourers. The staff that work one-on-one with the students claim that their contributions do not just benefit the students. They say that a synergy is created to bring together knowledge and flexible mindsets.
“They come prepared to learn their role, but they come also excited to connect with the other biotech students, departments and share learning,” remarked Tania George, team leader late phase oncology, PD Biometrics, Roche Canada. “They have connected globally at other sites and created networks, and bring fresh eyes to the table. The students have a role and desire to contribute that different view that they have, and they’re confident about it. So, they feel supported to speak up and have their voice heard. It’s been a great investment.”
Mississauga has placed itself on the map as a world leader in biotechnology. A home to 500 life sciences companies that employ over 24,000 people in the region. It is an emerging centre for R&D, innovation and industrial growth that demonstrate strengths in areas such as agri-food biotechnology, therapeutics biotechnology, and genomics.
“In Mississauga, we believe that it’s a stem-hub because of our partnership not only with the University of Toronto but with our other partnerships as well in communities across Ontario,” stated Biondi. “For us, it’s about encouraging universities to continue programming in the area of biotechnology. Again, we recognize that those stem careers are going to be important in developing careers and developing industries across Canada.”
There is proactive participation from local, provincial and federal governments offering tax incentives, as well as strong infrastructure to support and entice more biotech companies to the cluster. Mississauga has seven major highways traversing it and offers fast and convenient access to prime destinations in Canada and the United States. The largest and busiest airport in Canada, The Lester B. Pearson International Airport, is also conveniently located in Mississauga and additionally, has two principal railways cross the city for ultimate transportation options.
“I think it’s a great place to be in the pharma community,” said George. “Mississauga is quite diverse so there’s a lot of opportunity for cross-company collaboration, and being close to the MBiotech community, I think that the partnership with UofT has been really fruitful and beneficial.”
Mississauga continues to be a growing metropolitan in the greater Toronto area with an ever-expanding sector in life sciences. It has the capacity to attract, train, and retain skilled workers for the biotech sector. Recapturing Ronnie Miller’s statement, “It is the perfect place to be.”