The power of the virtual cluster

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Making Canada the Silicon Valley of natural products

By Debbie Lawes 

What if a nation’s entire research and commercialization capacity pulled together to help your company get new natural products and technologies to market faster, cheaper and more efficiently?

That one-stop dream has been realized with the launch in 2016 of Natural Products Canada (NPC), a $23-million industry-led network that brings together a national ecosystem of companies, universities, regulatory experts, business consultants and investors. Together, they are working with companies to turn ideas and technologies into products that benefit the health of humans, animals and the planet.

“Until now there’s been no organizing structure to align disparate resources across the country towards commercialization,” says Rory Francis, executive director of the PEI BioAlliance, one of four regional clusters participating in NPC. “NPC pulls together all the pieces including multinationals and their supply chains.”

NPC was established in 2016 as a federally funded Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research with regional nodes in PEI, Saskatchewan (Ag-West Bio), Ontario (University of Guelph) and Quebec (Institute of Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods). NPC defines natural products broadly, encompassing personal health products such as nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals, functional foods and functional ingredients, as well as agricultural feeds, biopesticides and green replacements for traditional chemicals.

“Take biocomposites,” adds Shelley King, CEO of NPC. “If we can replace all the carbon products in a car with biocomposites, it could make them 400 to 800 pounds lighter. Think about the fuel usage if your car or truck is 800 pounds lighter.”

The NPC investment program is designed to inject capital into high-potential companies, while de-risking the investment of private investors. Its first investee company is a Napanee, Ontario start-up founded on a technology developed by a team of firefighters, scientists and business professionals. FireRein Inc. has created Eco-Gel™, an effective and non-toxic water additive that can “knock down” fires up to 55% faster while using up to 60% less water. Made from bio-renewable, food-grade ingredients, Eco-Gel™ is safe for the firefighter and the environment. “The investment by NPC was a catalyst for our ability to secure interest and funding from angel and private investors,” says Rui Resendes, CEO, FireRein. “NPC’s endorsement, coupled with input and advice on the business strategy, was a tremendous asset in helping us raise sufficient capital to scale up production and increase sales.” NPC’s primary focus is commercialization— providing companies with the technology, business, regulator y and investment support to bring new products to market faster, cheaper and more efficiently.

“Nationally, we have great research capabilities, regulatory and clinical trial expertise, dozens of incubators and accelerators, as well as an abundance of raw materials, including agriculture, aquaculture, forestry and fisheries,” says King. “We are aligning and optimizing all those assets across Canada so that a company in PEI, for example, can access relevant scale up expertise or resources in Saskatoon, and vice versa.”

“It is not about enticing companies to move from one province to another,” she adds. “It’s enabling them to find the key clusters of expertise, infrastructure or mentorship that will help them achieve their business goals… We also want to connect smaller companies with larger supply chains so we can create more hundred million dollar companies in Canada.”

Consumer demand for natural products has increased exponentially over the last decade. Global sales are predicted to rise to nearly US$188 billion by 2019, according to New York-based Transparency Market Research.

These products include human (non-pharmaceutical) and animal health, as well as in agricultural ingredients, fish feed stocks, food and sectors where companies are seeking alternatives to petroleum. Consumers are increasingly demanding products derived from natural sources based on their health and environmental benefits. Until now, much of this demand has been filled by imports. “Canada’s natural product sector is poised to benefit from the growing global demand for healthy and sustainable products,” says NPC board chair, Robert Orr. “NPC’s international connections, collaborative approach, and effective mix of advisory services and investment programming, are key tools to help Canadian companies compete on the world stage.”

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