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Hamilton Economic Development

Life Science cluster is chance of a lifetime for Hamilton

Keanin Loomis, President of Hamilton Chamber of Commerce photoHamilton has everything it needs to be a Canadian life sciences leader, except leadership.

A new study by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce seeks to plug that gap by forming a new group to ignite development in the sector.

The study shows the city once known for steel and heavy manufacturing now is vying for the title of Canada’s health care capital.

To get that title, the study calls for a new leader to focus on the sector.

Entitled Building a Life Science Cluster, the report says Hamilton has a “once-in-a-generation” chance to develop a new source of economic and social wealth if it can get all the players already in that field working together.

Chamber president Keanin Loomis said developing such a cluster has been talked about for years in Hamilton, but now there’s a clear road map to get there.

“This report isn’t just fluff, platitudes and generalities,” he said. “It’s the culmination of almost three years of work. It took a long time but it was done right.”

Loomis added the mere fact of doing the study helped focus the attention of players on the need to work together, and that should pay dividends in the future.

The chamber report said Hamilton already has the tools needed to build that cluster — what it needs is a catalyst to get all the other elements working together.

“Hamilton needs to increase the amount of dedicated infrastructure designed to nurture the formation of this industry cluster, such as life sciences incubation space. We have insufficient venture capital flowing to the region, and there are too few programs working to promote and exploit Hamilton’s life sciences assets, or to create a culture of commercialization within the life sciences sector itself,” the report notes. “Arguably, we also lack significant business expertise required to commercialize and support business ventures. Most importantly, there is no driving force or chief advocate leading the charge for the establishment of a life sciences industry cluster in Hamilton.”

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To overcome that lack the chamber calls for the formation of a cluster working group consisting of leaders from the public and private sectors to ignite the next phase of development.

The report grew out of recommendations from the 2012 Hamilton Economic Summit. It notes there are 300 Hamilton companies involved in some type of life sciences work supporting 20,000 direct and indirect jobs. Players include firms such as Titan Medical Inc. which has a research facility in Ancaster working on new robotic surgical technology; Face the World Cosmetics, specializing in camouflage therapy for people with severe skin conditions and Hamilton Medical Research Group which works on developing new drugs and getting them to market.

The latest Labour Force Survey numbers from Statistics Canada show 53,300 people employed in manufacturing in December, up 9.8 per cent from the previous January. The professional/scientific and health service categories provided 81,500 jobs, up 10.4 per cent from January 2013.

The chamber report concludes building a successful life sciences cluster requires five elements: a critical mass of knowledge and talent; an industrial base; infrastructure and funding; the support of players in the sector; and a driving force.

Hamilton is ranked excellent or good on the knowledge and support of players scales, fair on the state of its life sciences industrial base and fair-to-poor on infrastructure and the lack of a driving force for development.

Developing a life sciences cluster has been part of Hamilton’s economic development strategy since 2010. Norm Schleehahn, the department business development manager, said in an email exchange Hamilton’s base of knowledge and institutions make the goal an achievable one for the city.

“We have a strong knowledge infrastructure with internationally ranked life science research institutions … and significant investments in developing technologists to address the service side of health care delivery,” he wrote.

Mayor Bob Bratina called the report “a good overview” of an important issue for the city and said he hopes to be able to bring a recommendation to council soon to “address some of the issues in the report.”

Key players in such a cluster will be institutions such as Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), McMaster University and the McMaster Innovation Park (MIP).

Rob MacIsaac, new chief executive of HHS, praised the chamber for showing leadership on the issue and said the hospital network “will be at the table” when the strategy is set.

“I think it’s a no-brainer to anyone in Hamilton that we can achieve more by working together than we can alone,” he said. “This is a good first step in what we have to do.”

Zach Douglas, president of MIP, said his institution is already involved in the effort by creating a large incubator space. What’s more exciting, he added, is the sense all the players in the cluster accept the idea they have to work together.

“There’s clear evidence that some things are happening around here but more of it can be done,” he said. “Now we have to get everyone together to digest this report and see if there’s a way to move forward.”

Article courtesy of Steve Arnold, The Hamilton Spectator

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