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Canada marketing itself as life-sciences destination

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With more life sciences companies looking abroad for development opportunities, Canadian contract research organizations are hoping San Diego’s biotech community will start looking north. Far north.

Vancouver, a city similar to San Diego in that it’s on the West Coast and has some of its country’s best weather, has a burgeoning biotech industry, growing ever faster in the past few years since the Canadian government introduced laws and funding aimed at encouraging life sciences. Working with the Canadian Consulate in downtown San Diego, some contract research organizations (CROs) from the British Columbian city, along with a few from Alberta, are trying to spread that word to American companies, particularly here on the West Coast.

“There are some definite benefits to being in Canada and we’re just trying to make that connection,” said Chad Rathlef, associate director of business development for Prime Trials, a Vancouver-based CRO. Rathlef was in La Jolla for an informational conference Friday. “We’re just trying to educate people on better processes.”

Some of those advantages, according to David Mee, senior therapeutics area operations leader in oncology for Thousand Oaks-based Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN), include a legal system that’s easier to negotiate, an untapped patient population and strong life sciences infrastructure. Amgen has research and development offices in Canada.

“Canada has become a much more attractive place for studies,” Mee said.

In years past, Mee said, Europe was seen as a more cost effective alternative for some American companies, but Canada has worked to emerge as, in some cases, a better option. Mee said language, time zone and cultural similarities give it a definite advantage, particularly for West Coast companies, but U.S. companies can also take advantage of the 18.7 cents for every dollar that they’ll received in tax credits if they conduct research in Canada. There is also a stronger patient pool on which to conduct research, he said, and labor is cheaper.

Canada spends the third most money of any country in the world (behind the United States and Germany) on its life sciences programs. Though Mee said Canada’s legal and ethics systems are easier to navigate than the United States, they are no less strict. He pointed out that Canada was one of only two countries in the world – Australia being the other – to have no official actions taken against them by the Food and Drug Administration.

Mee pointed out that Canada’s laws protecting intellectual property are similar to those in the United States. Intellectual property has been a concern for some companies moving to China and other east Asian countries, he said. Amgen moved out of China several years ago for that reason and is only gradually starting return now.

Rathlef acknowledged that trying something as pricey and time consuming as research and development with someone new has left some companies in the United States reluctant to move to Canada. Plus, Canada only made its regulation changes aimed at encouraging development in 2001, making it a fairly recent player.

“Sometimes I think it’s, well, not ignorance, but just a lack of knowledge about the process of things” that prevents companies from moving operations to Canada, Rathlef said. People feel stretched too thin by the number of locations vying for their attention and perhaps the number of places their companies conduct business, and don’t want to learn the rules and regulations of yet another country.

But Rathlef said he thinks that’s changing, with more companies seeing what biotech firms like Amgen have done, and seeing impressive results. “Sometimes they can get work done in Canada before they can get it done in the U.S.,” Rathlef said of companies like Amgen. “That results in killing a project faster or getting it to market faster, which results in better profits.”

Rathlef worked with other Canadian CRO representatives and the Canadian Consulate to bring about a dozen Canadian companies down to about 35 San Diego-area biotechs on Friday. Mirta Grifman, a trade commissioner for the consulate, said she thinks San Diego firms were interested in what they’d heard.

“Several people have come to thank me and said they learned a lot,” Grifman said. “We tried to capture a cross section of the field.”


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