Quebec has firmly established itself as a major biotech player in Canada and internationally. The city of Montréal, and to a lesser extent Quebec City, are home to rapidly expanding pharmaceutical and biotechnology clusters, a reflection of the region's capacity for innovation that is based around strong academic and government research laboratories, numerous investment firms, and a favorable provincial R&D tax system.

According to the latest bioindustry profile published by BioQuebec, the province's bioindustry business network, the life sciences sector accounts for approximately 8000 jobs and a healthy 17% of the total number of employees in Quebec. Some 70% of those employees are working in the human health sector, most prominently in therapeutics, pharmaceuticals, and genomics.

A major attractor for bioindustries in Quebec has been the National Research Council's (NRC's) Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI). Established in Montréal in 1987, the BRI functions as a regional engine for innovation, bringing together local firms and research strengths. Within its walls are advanced molecular biology and biochemical engineering laboratories and bioprocess facilities that are used in collaborative research projects with local companies.

NRC's experiment would seem to be working. To date, BRI has attracted a number of large companies, including Merck-Frosst (a sponsor of Next Wave Canada), DSM Biologics, Astra Pharmaceuticals, Procter & Gamble, GlaxoSmithKline, and Boehringer Ingleheim, which have moved to the Montréal area to set up research centers that employ hundreds of workers. The concentration of R&D resources at BRI has also attracted 16 smaller companies to set up shop within its facilities.

"There are many advantages of doing business in Quebec for biotech and big pharma companies," according to Marie-Odile Martin, marketing manager at BRI-NRC. Martin cites generous R&D tax credits, lower construction and operational costs than in the U.S., a skilled and bilingual workforce, and a favorable exchange rate for U.S. dollars as some of the reasons for the exceptional growth in the life science sector in the province.

At least one company agrees. Shire BioChem Pharma (formerly BioChem Pharma) is one of BRI's collaborators and among the most well publicized and innovative biotechnology firm in Montréal. The company employs approximately 500 people in three main research areas--therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostics. "The great attraction for us in Quebec is the close proximity of excellent research universities, certainly for recruiting purposes but also collaborations," says communications representative Michele Roi. Roi adds that the critical mass of pharmaceutical companies has also been beneficial for the company's research activities, in addition to the R&D tax support provided by the Quebec government.

The announcement in June of a new biotech cluster development that is unique in Canada has set off another buzz of excitement in the Montréal region. The Quebec government, Investissement Québec, the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), the Laval Technopole, and the City of Laval announced the investment of $250 million over the next 5 years for the development of a center of excellence that will serve biotech, biopharmaceutical, and biocomputer companies.

The City of Biotechnology and Human Health of Metropolitan Montréal, or Biotech City, will function as a business and science center. Located on almost 11 million square feet of land in the Laval Science and High Technology Park (which is already home to 30 biotech, biopharmaceutical, and information technology companies and research centers, including big names such as Shire, Roche Diagnostics, and Servier), Biotech City will accommodate biotech and biopharmaceutical companies as well as housing numerous specialized centers for research, learning, and commercial development, including:

  • The Microbiology and Biotechnology Center, which will focus on studying microorganisms and looking for environmental and industrial applications

  • The Human Health Research Center, which will address health problems such as AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis, allergies, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, transplant rejection, and conditions related to systems of the body (nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, and reproductive)

  • The Experimental Biology Center, which will double in capacity, making it one of the largest such centers in Canada

  • The Plant Biology Center, which will research plant biotechnologies, medicinal plants, and organic growing and will perform large-scale experiments

  • The Ambulatory Technology Research Center, which will develop ambulatory technology expertise and commercialize applications, promote university spin-offs, and house businesses specialized in the field

  • The Bioscience Training and Interpretation Center, which will have rooms for exhibits, training sessions, conferences, video conferencing, and a virtual library and will accommodate the head office of the Biotech City

The development is good news in terms of job creation for up-and-coming science graduates. "We project that Biotech City will generate around 2000 new jobs in the next 5 years," says Sylvie Gauthier, communications director at Laval Technopole. To get ahead of the game, the INRS is injecting millions of dollars to expand it's graduate research facilities in order to provide more skilled, multidisciplinary specialists for the expanding local biotech sector.

BRI-NRC's Martin hastens to add that the while Biotech City offers many advantages, it is only one of the biotech clusters in the Montréal area. "Around the BRI-NRC, there are over 1500 jobs in biotech. Within a 10-kilometer radius we find BRI, big pharmas, the Technoparc Saint-Laurent, and the highest concentration of emerging companies in the biotechnology industry," says Martin. There is no doubt that Quebec will remain a leader in biopharmaceutical clusters in Canada for some time to come.