By Vern Faulkner
Saanich News
March 18, 2003

Half of the Vancouver Island Technology Park (VITP) will be full once MDS Metro Lab Services, its newest tenant, moves in. But even more importantly the addition of the largest independent community laboratory network could very well put the province in a position to brave a new biotechnology frontier as pioneer in protein research. 

VITP helped broker a private-public partnership that will see MDS Metro Lab Services consolidate its three existing offices and move its 150 employees into the tech park along with 20 researchers from UVic's Proteomics Centre who will be devoted to the exploration of molecular proteins. 

Capital from Genome BC, a project that has access to federal, provincial and private funds, will be injected into the union to advance protein research. 

"This is the opening of the first life-sciences cluster in Victoria," says Dr. Don Rix, chair of both MDS Metro labs. 

The University of Victoria has been actively trying to bridge the gap between scholastic research and the private sector with such ventures as the soon-to-be-opened Discovery Park. UVic president Dr. David Turpin expects the UVic/MDS/VITP partnership will help bring the region's corporate and academic sectors even closer together. 

"(It) will help to further research and development and it will help serve to establish our province as a leader in research and commercialization," he declares. That in turn, will help fuel knowledge-based industry in BC, which Turpin is convinced will transform the provincial economy. 

Proteomics, the study of molecular proteins, holds the key to a host of possible health care breakthroughs, he insists. 

"It is very likely that in the not too distant future, family doctors will have proteomic tools to assist in diagnosis," Turpin suggests. "The partnership that we're forging between the University of Victoria, Genome BC, MDS Metro Labs, and the Vancouver Island Technology Park is going to bring that day closer." 

Indeed, Alan Winter, the president and CEO of Genome BC, suggests that in many ways, the partnership signals a significant step forward for biotech research in the region. 

"This is the day we see some of the reasons Genome BC was put together," Winter says. "This is an interesting area that in the future will do a lot for us in the area of how we diagnose disease and how we manage resources." 

The work that will be done at the VITP could impact forestry, fisheries, and health, but particularly the latter, says Winter. The cooperative relationships forged by the tech park managers and companies will assist in accelerating viability in the marketplace. 

"I am struck by the number of times companies that grow say they couldn't have done it if they weren't part of a larger cluster," Winter says. 

Plugging the Brain Drain
Besides blazing new trails in the realm of biotech research, the opportunities that emerge from the new public-private partnership as well as favourable personal and corporate taxation schemes may stem the exodus of Canadian high-tech talent to the United States. 

Bob Breen, MDS Metro president and chief operating officer, says the partnership is a crucial step in establishing the province as a biotech leader. 

"The provincial government has been saying for the past two years that British Columbia has fallen behind," he says. "These kinds of things are going to put British Columbia back on the forefront. This is what partnering with the public and private sector is all about." 

Breen is convinced that tax incentives also have an impact and eventually will help things "to pick up speed … (so) more and more will happen." 

He thinks the private-public partnership (also known as a P3) announced last week at the VITP might be used as a template for future agreements. 

"This will really showcase BC as a leader in the biotech sector," he says. "We're excited to be one of the ones at the forefront." 

Breen won't speculate about the sort of advances that can be expected from the VITP's latest partnership. "

Within a very short time of us being here, we'll be working with proteomics to move ahead on that platform," he said. "How long before you come up with something new is anybody's guess." 

Rix is willing to venture a guess. "I'd be very disappointed if we didn't see some results two years after they move in." 

Those results, he says, will come on two fronts. 

"You're going to see the synergistic effect of research ideas and new things we can use in the lab … The second thing you'll see is new companies coming here." 

Rix reveals that a company specializing in so-called "orphan" drugs, which are medications that may help mitigate the effects of extremely rare diseases, has already expressed an interest in getting in on the MDS Metro/UVic Proteomics group, or perhaps even setting up shop at the tech park. 

"I think you'll see other complimentary companies coming here because we're all here (and) they'll want to be here too," predicts Rix, who believes high-tech talent will also follow. 

Rix was one member of a provincially sponsored trade mission to California last fall. One stop on the tour was Stanford University, where over 200 Canadian high-tech students, many of whom are working on master's or doctorate degrees, welcomed the tour. 

"Sure, they were interested in the tax issues, but they were (also) very interested to see if they could do the things they were trained to do," notes Rix, "…whether there was a facility they can work at, research they can do, (grants available), companies interested in what they can do." 

Because of the new research opportunities that will emerge as a result of the partnership, the tech park might be more able to attract some of Canada's best and brightest minds. 

In short, says Rix, the 'build it and they will come' philosophy not only will keep talented young minds from heading south, but also luring back some of the nation's intellectual elite from across the US border. 

"We'll hold and attract people, and we'll also attract some people that were down (south) who will now come back because the work they want to do is being done up here and they have some opportunity to pursue that."