The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust life sciences into the spotlight. The sector has clearly played a critical role in the global response to the pandemic, earning significant attention as it made important advancements in human health and the fight against the disease.
Innovative space supporting life sciences technology advancements has never been in such high demand in the Greater Toronto Region and other large Canadian cities as it is today. The pharmaceutical, bio- and biomedical, medical device and other life sciences sectors are all seeing tremendous momentum as the impact of the pandemic continues to amplify the need for further investment in local life sciences industries.
Now is the perfect time for the Canadian development sector, venture capitalists, governments, universities and hospitals to invest in new lab space and the creation of life sciences infrastructure to leverage this demand and create world-class clusters within our communities. The Canadian commercial real estate sector is facing a major opportunity to design and develop specialized life sciences properties to meet the needs of our future economy and address the surging demand for wet lab and life sciences space and capacity.
Canada’s life sciences sector facing risk amidst the surge in growth and demand
Canadian companies like Abcellera in Vancouver and Structura Biotechnology in Toronto have emerged as key players in the fight against COVID-19; however, our country's inability so far to produce an approved vaccine domestically has highlighted the need for further investment if Canada is to grow into a leader. Recognizing the need to strengthen the sector, the government has committed to invest up to $1 billion in the industry as part of the 2021 federal budget. This is an important infusion of capital but this is only the beginning. A great start, nonetheless.
Despite the increasing demand and interest in the life sciences sector, there remains a high risk of Canadian companies and talent leaving the country for cities such as Boston and San Francisco where there are prominent clusters and funding opportunities in place, and the sector is in a mature stage of existence. While domestic supply of life sciences premises was lacking prior to the pandemic, the growth velocity of this sector is far exceeding the Canadian development market’s pace and ability to react, which has been highlighted during the last year and a half.
Derrick Rossi, the Canadian co-founder of Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna, the $5.25-billion biotechnology company that created one of the universally-approved COVID-19 vaccines, recently urged Canadian businesses, universities and governments to develop biotech hubs to diminish the country’s reliance on external resources in the event of another global health crisis.
It’s as if Canada’s life sciences sector is graduating university, with infrastructure stalled in secondary school. This is reflected in the limited number of premises available to entities graduating to larger premises from the various incubator facilities operating in Canada. Enter the opportunity for developers and partners to seize the moment and transform the sector by becoming stakeholders in the sector and delivering the space and property it needs to grow and scale within Canada. The demand for this type of lab space and other life sciences infrastructure is outstripping supply, which clearly suggests forward-thinking entities specializing in this industry could realize tremendous benefits and be stewards and trailblazers of growth for decades to come.
Life sciences companies have specific space requirements to operate – and grow
Life sciences firms require dynamic buildings to accommodate the needs of highly skilled professionals and complex science. Enhanced mechanical systems, electricity, plumbing and HVAC with increased air exchange, as well as generous ceiling heights, floor loading and venting, are all considerations that support lab operations. One challenge life sciences firms often face when scaling up is a lack of knowledge from landlord partners of these important and unique requirements, and why.
While it’s more complicated and costly to design and build these sophisticated structures, it’s certainly doable. There is a significant opportunity for universities, governments and development communities to synergize and understand the specific requirements of life sciences firms and translate them into property development.
Innovation and place-making need to go beyond the walls of life sciences buildings
It’s important for us to build spaces that match the needs and wants of the people within the life sciences community, who are highly trained, sophisticated and diverse. To attract and retain top talent, it’s important to develop well-rounded clusters located in or near city centres, well-serviced by transit, with amenity-rich offerings in place.
Demand for this type of ecosystem is evidenced by the success being demonstrated by McMaster Innovation Park in Hamilton, Ontario. Prioritizing location and comprehensive community offerings is fundamental to attracting talent and enticing life sciences companies to grow their operations in Canada.
So what should happen next?
Governments, universities, venture capitalists, businesses and property developers need to actively work together as aligned stakeholders to build and support the creation of life sciences clusters in Canada.
Canada currently lacks developers dedicated to building a portfolio of life sciences-oriented properties. (There are several entities currently evaluating the opportunity, which hopefully translates into action in the near-term.) As a result, our homegrown companies in the sector often leave and continue their growth in cities that provide the ecosystems and infrastructure life science companies need once they reach the graduation phase in their business – These communities are most often south of the border.
Through specialization, Canadian communities and clusters will emerge as attractive to both domestic and international businesses and will strengthen the country’s footprint in the global market. With momentum spurring the life sciences sector like never before, the time is now for the development community and partners to grasp the opportunity and commit to accelerating the construction of Canada’s life sciences infrastructure.
Matthew Johnson is a Senior Vice President at Colliers Toronto Brokerage focused on life sciences and medical technology space.