A new Toronto-based accelerator is opening to help early-stage Canadian biotech ventures overcome fundamental barriers, such as a lack of lab space and access to capital.
MaRS Discovery District and adMare BioInnovations are partnering to lead the MaRS-adMare Therapeutics Accelerator. The program will be located in the MaRS building in downtown Toronto.
The accelerator will “prepare a universe of our most promising biotech companies to scale up in Canada and form the foundation of a national biotech industry with global impact.”
The program is meant to unlock scarce wet lab space and bring together early-stage biotech ventures to commercialize and scale.
Yung Wu, the CEO of the MaRS Discovery District, said that the MaRS-adMare Therapeutics Accelerator will provide missing links: access to commercialization expertise and mentorship, shared infrastructure, and capital.
Wu said with those in place it will “prepare a universe of our most promising biotech companies to scale up in Canada and form the foundation of a national biotech industry with global impact.”
Lab space inventory is in high demand, according to a report from commercial real estate group CBRE. The report called lab vacancy in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) “virtually non-existent.” Of the 12.3 million square feet of inventory available in the region, only 0.2 percent is available.
In fact, the report notes that out of the MaRS Discovery District and McMaster Innovation Park campuses, most multi-tenant lab properties are scarce and account for only 2.3 percent of total inventory. The report describes the laboratory real estate market in the GTHA as “nascent,” but noted that ballooning demand domestically and from abroad is attracting growing investor interest.
According to the report, lab inventory in the GTHA is concentrated in smaller facilities, greatly limiting the ability for tenants to expand or grow at scale. Currently, the report estimates that over 3.5 million square feet of active lab tenant requirements exist, but contends opportunities are “incredibly limited” with demand representing 141 times the currently available lab space in the market.
The application process for the first cohort of the MaRS-adMare Therapeutics Accelerator is already underway and will close in March 2023. Five ventures will be chosen in the first round and are expected to move into the new space later in the spring.
The accelerator offers a wide range of services, including scientific and regulatory guidance for preclinical and clinical studies; coaching and expertise in business development and IP strategy; access to a digital community platform, C-suite executives, industry partners and investors; access to financial support for ventures to scale and achieve growth-related milestones; and access to state-of-the-art wet laboratory facilities in the MaRS Centre.
The program builds on the adMare National Accelerator with Regional Partners, with innovation centres already in Montréal and Vancouver.
“With over 100 business and science professionals focused on commercial drug development at our Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal centres we are excited to bring all that we’ve learned to this new program,” said Gordon McCauley, President and CEO, adMare BioInnovations. “The Ontario ecosystem represents a major innovation hub in Canadian biotechnology and adMare is proud to partner with MaRS to support the growth of these ventures and contribute to making Canada a worldwide life science leader. The fit is clear.”
Amol Deshpande, senior director of health sciences at the MaRS Discovery District, called the shortage of lab space “a huge issue.” He told BetaKit that private lab space is in particularly short supply. He distinguished private lab space as that used for commercialization to help build companies as opposed to lab spaces in universities, which serves research purposes.
The first iteration of the accelerator will be about 2,500 square feet, but MaRS wants to open up another 7,000 square feet in the second phase over the next 12 to 24 months. Deshpande described the wet labs as being much like a high school biology lab, but “ramped up” with fume hoods, biological hoods, and more. “You’re dealing a little bit more with organic compounds with bacteria, petri dishes, stuff like that,” he said.
The deadline for early stage startups to apply to the accelerator program is March 1. If accepted, five startups will have up to 24 months to make use of the wet lab space, mentorship and other services on offer. Deshpande said while 24 months might sound like a long period of time for an accelerator, he pointed out that it’s difficult to do anything significant in three to four months when trying to develop a biological compound to eventually go into people.
“It takes time,’ he said. “You have to worry about safety, efficacy.”
When they look at startups that might qualify for the accelerator, MaRS and adMare will look for the quality of the science, first-off. Some questions they want answered include: Does the science make sense? Is it validated? What’s the team like? Is the team aggressive, hungry, coachable?
Deshpande said they’d also want to know, “Is it a rare disease, where it’s literally a game-changer? Do they literally change the healthcare paradigm of what’s already out there? What impact can they make within the market space?”
The startups themselves should be focused on solving human health, life science challenges such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes. “That’s what we’re really focused on, marrying the commercialization of life sciences with health benefits of Canadians,” Deshpande added.
MaRS claims to be North America’s largest urban innovation hub, and supports high-growth startups and scale-ups tackling key issues in health, cleantech, FinTech, and other sectors.
The government and privately-backed innovation hub runs a number of programs, including a Manufacturing Incubation Program. MaRS also partnered with KPMG Canada in June to launch a Climate Impact Accelerator designed to advance commercialization in Canada’s cleantech sector and build a stronger network between startups, corporations, and governments.
MaRS’ investment arm, IAF, along with the Province of Ontario and private sector investors, added on to its venture funds in January with the launch of a $100 million fund focusing on seed-stage investments.
Healthtech has remained one of MaRS’s main focuses. The MaRS Centre is attached directly to the Toronto General Hospital, and healthtech is one of the four main concentrations of the organization.
Deshpande said while MaRS does a fair bit of work in the area of biotech, this new accelerator puts it all under one umbrella. He noted it brings together capital from the MaRS IAF investment fund, brings new lab space to the table, and adds talent and advisors. Altogether, the program focuses on the higher probability that it can produce startups faster. As well, Deshpande said the program is not Toronto-centric, but is open to all of Ontario.
The accelerator marks MaRS’s first venture with adMare. The latter is already active in British Columbia and Québec, and now that MaRS is adding Ontario, Deshpande said it connects Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal, “which creates an interesting and formidable powerhouse on a global stage versus each of us trying to do it alone.
Complementary skill sets led MaRS to partner with adMare. MaRS offers skills in commercialization, Deshpande noted, while adMare has what he called a deep expertise in bioinnovation. “They’re focused solely on life sciences, so bringing their scientific prowess together with MaRS’ space, location, the commercialization focus that we have just made perfect sense. The vision was the same,” he concluded.
Feature image courtesy MaRS.