It all started with an idea. Eugene Gala’s growing concern over oil reserve depletion, global warming and the environment’s declining condition moved him to actualize his concept of using biomass as a replacement for fossil fuel.
Gala and his business partner, Stephane Gauthier, formed E-mission Free in 2006, a company that concentrates on developing technologies for alternative heating. Although they had the technology, they needed advice from a business professional. “We’re a very small company, so we lack some of the resources and we lack some of the expertise in putting a business plan together,” says Gala, who turned to The Eureka Project, a business incubator located at the University of Manitoba’s Smartpark Research and Technology Park, for advice.
Gary Brownstone, President of The Eureka Project, says the E-mission Free scenario is typical. “We find that most of the people that are starting new biotech companies come from a science and technology background and therefore lack the management experience, so that’s what we provide,” says Brownstone.
A cluster of Winnipeg’s life sciences companies call the Smartpark home. The Smartpark offers start-ups close proximity to top-tier academic researchers and their laboratory facilities, says Alan Simms, President of the Smartpark. “The interaction between other start-ups, as well as global giants like Cangene and Monsanto, in addition to the availability of academic researchers, provides fertile ground for innovation and business success,” says Simms. All Smartpark tenants are involved in research and product development, which creates a support system for start-ups. Incubated companies are surrounded by similar companies and people who want to help their business succeed. “You just have to go and ask,” says Gala.
E-mission Free resides inside one of the cube-shaped glass and brick buildings sprawled along Innovation Drive. At Eureka, start-ups have access to amenities such as a fully furnished office, meeting rooms and fax machines, says Gala. While there is no lab space inside Eureka’s 10,000 square-foot facility, companies may arrange access to the University of Manitoba’s lab facilities or the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, also located at the Smartpark.
The Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals has the capability and equipment to move anyone developing a functional food or nutraceutical product from the lab all the way to the pilot plant process. The analytical labs include a nutrigenomics lab, protein characterization lab, pathology and toxicology lab, cell/tissue culture lab, quality control lab, microbiology lab and growth and stability chamber unit. The Richardson Centre Clinical Research Unit allows researchers to conduct inpatient and outpatient studies and is equipped with facilities such as advanced metabolic kitchen facilities, a clinical office and a blood collection facility.
Brownstone explains that a lot of start-ups need the proficiency of an experienced CEO, but are unable to afford the six-figure price tag that accompanies hiring one. A start-up doesn’t necessarily need a full-time CEO on staff, but may require the CEO’s expertise when it comes to making tough decisions, says Brownstone. Because incubators provide their services to many companies, they can provide packages and discounts on their services.
Christopher Moreau, President, Miraculins, a company founded by Albert Friesen, believes any business that uses an incubator will save money. “Typically in the early days, and especially in this sector, you start as an R&D project and you don’t have revenue,” says Moreau.
According to Friesen, the number one reason start-ups fail is not because of their technology or business model, but because they don’t have enough capital. “The major issue in Canada has been and continues to be lack of capital,” says Friesen. “That’s why one of the things we’ve done from the very beginning is to provide access to capital,” he says. Genesys Ventures Inc., Friesen’s life science incubator founded in 1997, is affiliated with CentreStone Ventures, a private venture capital firm that gives start-ups and early- to mid-size firms access to capital.
Genesys also provides life science companies with technology and business development, intellectual property management, accounting, finance, administrative and office management services and project-specific consulting. The company’s 10,000 square-foot lab facilities include an animal facility in which scientists can perform in vivo studies.
The widespread infrastructure available for start-ups and innovators in Winnipeg gives innovators the opportunity to bring their ideas to fruition. Incubators nurture start-ups to develop their technologies and clusters bring together the best minds with the right facilities and tools.
Why in the world Winnipeg? For biotech companies wanting a central location, Winnipeg is about as dead centre in the continent as possible. For med-tech companies wanting a return on what they invest in manufacturing, Winnipeg leads North America in manufacturing ROI. For businesses looking for the right people, Winnipeg claims to have the most concentrated life science workforce in Canada and, in pamphlets and marketing materials, boasts to be one of the most affordable places to do business.
But in an environment that sees U.S. states ladling out sweet tax incentives to attract businesses inside their borders, why Winnipeg? Manufacturers located in Winnipeg can benefit from the Manitoba Manufacturing Investment Tax Credit, worth up to 10 per cent. There is alsoand at the same time, much sweetera $30 million Commercialization Support for Business program created by the province of Manitoba that covers up to 50 per cent of a biotech’s third party expenses.