Researchers at the University of Moncton are studying the efficacy of plant-based alternatives to fish oils, whose sustain-ability is questionable. Here, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Natalie Lefort and Dr. Marc Surette, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, hold a bottle of Ahiflower, a vegetable oil produced by Nature's Crops International in PEI and the UK. Their studies found that Ahiflower offers a safe and effective substitute to traditional fish oil. (Photo: University of Moncton)

Prince Edward Island may be Canada smallest province with just 146,000 residents, but it is emerging as one of the country’s fastest growing bioscience clusters.

“We couldn’t have done this 15 years ago,” says Rory Francis, executive director of the PEI BioAlliance. “That is the power of the cluster. You have to have relationships among business, research and government, along with a coordinated strategy…This cluster didn’t exist 10 years ago. Today’s it’s a significant part of our economy.”

The 48 bioscience companies in the province employ about 1,500 employees, including some 200 PhDs. High profile companies working in PEI include BioVectra, Elanco and Sekisui Diagnostics. Revenue earned by PEI bioscience companies surpassed $200 million in 2015.

Similar bioclusters exist across Canada and in 2015, the PEI BioAlliance took the lead in developing a proposal to links these regional pockets of expertise to create a national Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research. The proposal won $14 million in a federal competition last year, leading to the launch of National Products Canada.

Dr. Russ Kerr, CEO of Nautilus Bioscience Canada, a marine natural products discovery company, and chair of the BioAlliance board, says NPC will open a range of new product opportunities for Canadian businesses.

“With applications in personal care products, cosmetics, natural health products, veterinary health and nutrition, agricultural and food products, and environmental remediation, the market for more sustainably-produced, natural product chemistry-based ingredients is growing very quickly,” says Kerr, who is also a Canada Research Chair at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Francis says PEI’s biocluster is anchored by strong academic and federal science, including the University of PEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College, Holland College, National Research Council, Agriculture Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. These labs works with companies to move early stage technologies to market. Several of these companies have benefited from PEI’s virtual bioscience business incubator, EmerGence, which provides mentoring and specialized commercialization services to early stage companies.

“That is the hard work and that is where I think we established a track record of success that is getting international attention from companies and businesses who at PEI and Canada as a platform to access North American markets,” he said.

One company to take advantage of PEI’s virtual incubator has been Nature’s Crops International. The Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based company established a facility in PEI that extracts and refines oil from locally grown oilseed crops for industrial, personal care and nutritional markets. One of its products, called Ahiflower, is an affordable and sustainable alternative to omega-3 fish oil that was developed in partnership with scientists at the University of Moncton and the National Research Council. The product is now being sold in the US and EU and is expected to be available in Canada this year.

“What Nature’s Crops saw in PEI and Atlantic Canada was an opportunity to take advantage of our capacity to de-risk both the science and the business plan,” says Francis. “They also had access to the growers, and high quality bioscience graduates coming out of our colleges and universities.

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