These are exciting times for Bonnie Crombie, Mayor of Mississauga, ON. She is at the helm of one of Canada’s largest cities, a city that has a rich history involving the life sciences. She is also leading the charge to, in her words, “create a sustainable environment that supports and nurtures scientific breakthroughs and medical innovations that will benefit the world.”
These aren’t just words. After surveys, meetings, roundtables, and interviews with dozens of stakeholders, the city has launched its brand new Life Sciences Cluster Strategy, a five-year plan to address all of the gaps and opportunities that will allow it to further support the growth and development of the local life sciences cluster, the second-largest in Canada by employment.
We visited the mayor to learn about the plans first-hand.
Biotech is a hugely important and growing sector for your city.
It’s growing significantly. From 2003 to last year we’ve seen 26 per cent growth in the number of life sciences companies and 11 per cent by employment. Many of these are more than 100 employees. R&D spending by these companies has doubled in the past 10 years so they are a significant contributor to the economic and well-being of our city.
With 430 companies you′ve got critical mass, but obviously there′s something else you′re doing right. What is it?
We go out to companies. We have an economic development office and we have a sector specialist in life sciences and they manage our partnerships and seek out other partnerships with industry, associations and post secondary. We’re very good with partnering with stakeholders. We have a dedicated life sciences specialist to help nurture the sector and really help them network and grow their own supply chains and create more opportunity for innovation and collaboration.
What does the life sciences specialist do?
They’re the one focused on the sector and growing the sector business retention, expansion. Often these companies want expand or bring in their suppliers or distributors and we work with the Economic Development Office and even real estate to look for locations for them. Of course we want them to stay here so we provide great service. We call on them to learn more about their business and also to offer ourselves to see how we can assist them in their growth and learn about their issues. Sometimes we can help them with their issues. For instance, sometimes their employees take public transit so they ask can we put up a bus shelter in front of their office or reroute a bus or change a schedule; sometimes they need to connect with their federal member on SR&ED credits and we connect them so there are lots of things we can do. We have roundtables, bringing people from the sector together to discuss issues and network. We do it for other sectors as well but we do it regularly for the life sciences sector.
What about education?
We’re very fortunate because we have a strong education sector supporting the cluster at University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). There is the Academy of Medicine at UTM, a teaching hospital; there is the Institute for Management and Innovation (IMI). There’s a Master of Biotechnology.
Our city is very committed to the IMI. We’ve provided $1 million a year to get that off the ground for 10 years. There’s a special levy on the tax bill to support it. UTM is a big economic generator for us and it’s supporting many of our clusters, particularly life sciences. UTM will be the future home of the new Centre for Medicinal Chemistry led by world-renowned Dr. Patrick Gunning. We were able to attract him to Mississauga, and it’s an international coup. The university has put up quite a bit of infrastructure money to build this facility for him and there’s a team that is developing protein inhibitors to fight rare and lethal kinds of cancer. We might just solve cancer here in Mississauga because of the network we have here in life sciences, the research that is done by Dr. Gunning, and of course the support in the cluster that exists. We’re excited about the potential.
How do you respond when people say it’s time for government to stop talking and start doing?
I think our level of government does “do” and I think we’ve demonstrated our commitment and we have collaborated and supported the industry. I think we’ve gone far beyond what a typical municipal government does do quite frankly because when you look at it, we’re here to build your roads, bridges and sewers and clear your snow and open community centres so for us to have a life sciences strategy that promotes the industry and nurtures the industry, we’ve gone above and beyond what other levels of government have done. I think we’ve far exceeded probably all municipalities in what we do to provide support to the sector.
What is your goal when you head to BIO?
This will be my third BIO. Continued networking with the companies to provide them support. Looking for more connections whether they’re B2B or government to business opportunities. To represent Mississauga on a global scale. It was at BIO that I met Biolab, a Brazilian pharma. The Ontario government had been speaking to them and our economic development office had been speaking to them but when I sat down with them at BIO, they were still planning on going to New Jersey. Then we opened their eyes to the possibility of Canada as a softer landing than the highly competitive U.S. market and to the Greater Toronto Area as having a lower cost structure than they anticipated. They had been promised a lot of incentives buy the New Jersey government. We had to prove to them that we could compete and that we were a lower cost environment notwithstanding the extra tax incentives they were going to receive. They showed interest. Then we went to Brazil on a mission and we pitched our city and all attributes we bring. That was all started at BIO so if we could have another homerun like that and identify those companies abroad that are looking for a North American footprint, that’s the ideal situation.
What do the next few years look like?
We’re hoping Biolab will come in and settle and start staffing up and we continue to meet with companies and learn what their long-term goals are. Many of them are competing internationally for R&D dollars or the right to develop, produce, manufacture or distribute their key products.
Have you heard anything related to the new U.S. administration? That maybe Canada is a more favourable destination right now?
Yes, we’ve been hearing that from other sectors as well, especially when competing for global talent, etc. I think we will benefit from the circumstances. I am a little concerned they will want to reopen NAFTA but I’m hopeful. We’ve had other companies locate here because of access to other free trade agreements that exist that the U.S. does not enjoy.
You get the final word.
The bottom line is, we are a proven destination for the life sciences industry where these diverse companies locate. They succeed, they grow, they prosper. That track record exists and that’s why you see companies continue to come to Mississauga locating around the cluster. The sector will continue to be very important to Mississauga as we grow and we maintain our global competiveness by positioning ourselves as a leader in life sciences.
Read the entire Life Sciences Cluster Strategy at:
Conversation edited for space and clarity.