organized curiosity

Improving health care through research

Hotbed of innovation

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I was downtown at the Marriot hotel on the morning of October 25, 2012 when I got an urgent telephone call from Roman Szumski, VP Life Sciences at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).  He told me that the NRC was closing the medical imaging facilities they had within the IWK Health Centre and QEII and were about to tell the staff in 10 minutes. I was gobsmacked even though the NRC had already made the decision to close the imaging groups in Winnipeg and Calgary. At that time, the president of NRC had told me we had about 3 years to adjust and I believed him.  Now I was told the lab would close in less than 6 months. I was courteous to the VP but I won’t tell you what I said when I got off the phone!

The NRC had signalled that they would not support labs in areas that did not have significant Canadian companies affiliated with them and they felt that imaging was one of those areas as the companies are mostly dominated by huge multinationals such as GE Healthcare, Phillips and Siemens. However, they were not thinking of the broader impact imaging has on research including those in the medical technology field and pharmaceutical companies.  Imaging is a key component in bringing these types of products to market.

I knew the NRC Lab, which was called the NRC Institute for Biodiagnostics (Atlantic) (NRC-IBD (Atlantic) was doing excellent work in: supporting academic research; assisting companies (both small and medium sized local companies and large multinationals); and doing research themselves. At the IWK, there was a preclinical lab with MRI and PET/CT.  It worked with researchers and small companies doing the research needed to validate their treatments and technologies. There was also a MEG Lab which housed Canada’s most advanced Magnetoencephalography (MEG) system which measures extremely tiny magnetic fields produced by electrical currents in the brain. This powerful non-invasive technology provides vital motor and sensory information in children and adults prior to neurosurgery. At QEII, there was a high-field clinical research Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and EEG suite that was also used to conduct neuroscience research leading to innovation.

I didn’t know what to do. Should I just let the NRC close IBD (Atlantic)? This would result in a loss of almost all medical imaging research in Halifax and would have a negative impact on the life sciences community as a whole. We had to act fast or key staff would leave. The NRC had closed imaging groups in Calgary and in Winnipeg and the very highly trained scientists and technicians left quickly.  But I had no money to pay staff. What the heck was I going to do?

Against all common sense, I decided we had to save the imaging group. Although, I didn’t know how we were going to fund it. I knew bake sales would not work!

I had a secret weapon that would ultimately be critical. The secret weapon was the entire staff and particularly the leadership of the IBD (Atlantic). Dr. Steven Beyea and Denise Lalanne are the dynamic duo in the lead.  Steven is a medical physicist, trained at University of New Brunswick and had been at IBD (Atlantic) for 10 years.  Denise has a business degree from Dalhousie University and an arts degree in Psychology from St. Mary’s University and had been at IBD for 6 years. They wanted to make it work. Steven does the science and Denise does the business. I always thought they were quiet, determined and amazingly effective.

 Steven and Denise

Dr. Steven Beyea and Denise Lalanne

Together, we quickly got the key stakeholders in a meeting from industry, academia, and government to discuss the future.  My desire to save this expertise and infrastructure was unanimously supported by the community. Now, we had to find money to fund it!

With a business plan in hand, we went to industry to ensure that the companies wanted to continue working with the labs; we went to university and hospital departments; we went to researchers who were using the lab for contributions; and we went to the Nova Scotia government, through the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism and the Health Research Foundation for the balance. Actually when I say “we”, I mean Steven and Denise. I don’t do any work, I just go to meetings.

We got enough support to save the imaging group for two years.

So what has happened since then?  What has been happening during BIOTIC’s first year of operations.  Well, lots actually…

  • The group formerly known as NRC-IBD (Atlantic) has become BIOTIC and has a focussed mission to create and contribute to next-generation healthcare advances through R&D and commercialization of medical technology.
  • BioNova, the Nova Scotia life sciences industry association named the rescue of NRC-IBD (Atlantic), the story of the year.
  • BIOTIC has helped attract companies to start research in Nova Scotia, partly due to the unique combination of experience and infrastructure at BIOTIC.
  • The team has worked with 16 companies to move their technologies closer to market.
  • BIOTIC recently awarded a $3M financial contribution through the Atlantic Innovation Fund for a $7.6M project to develop “pushbutton” MRI diagnostics in collaboration with one of the largest companies in the world.
  • The QEII Foundation recently raised $2.9 million for a new high-field whole-body MRI that will be shared 50/50 research and clinical.
  • The group also acquired a preclinical SPECT to assist companies validate their technologies.
  • The BIOTIC team has trained more than 80 students this past year.
  • Foreign Direct Investment is being attracted to the province through various R&D collaborations with companies outside the province.
  • We hosted over 500 people from over 30 countries this summer to attend Biomag 2014, which provided us the opportunity to highlight the world-class R&D, develop new collaborations, and showcase our wonderful province.

The future of BIOTIC looks bright. They are an outstanding example of research entrepreneurship within the health system. They are fulfilling what Ray Ivany’s NOW or Never Report said we need to do. BIOTIC is improving health care by making new discoveries and facilitating others in our community to make new discoveries. At the same time, they are improving the economy of Nova Scotia. They are also providing great training for students here in Nova Scotia and creating new positions for highly qualified personnel, so our students do not have to go elsewhere to get a rewarding career.  We need more BIOTICs!!

~Dr. Patrick McGrath

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2 thoughts on “Hotbed of innovation

  1. I remember this. What a great story that came out of terrible news. It is wonderful to hear where they are today and their determination and dedication to ensuring Halifax doesn’t lose out.

  2. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is an old English proverb that really does apply to Innovation. There is a recent report from the Council of Academies called Paradox Lost, by Peter Nicholson. He reviewed a lot of information and argues that Canada has not been very innovative because, up to this time, we have gotten away with being a branch plant economy and an exporter of raw materials. He argues that we will not be able to do this much longer.

    Patrick McGrath

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