Bioscience industry booming

Despite being a big player in the provincial economy, challenges remain


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An industry profile study released this week shows that the bioscience industry in Manitoba is even larger than industry players believed it to be.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2019 (1131 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

An industry profile study released this week shows that the bioscience industry in Manitoba is even larger than industry players believed it to be.

Among other things, the survey determined the sector — which includes health biotech, ag biotech and clean tech companies — generated $9.3 billion in revenue in 2017.

Bioscience Association Manitoba (BAM) commissioned the study that combined results of a survey of close to 100 members, as well as Statistics Canada data.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Tracey Maconachie, executive director of Bioscience Association Manitoba, says the industry profile study is valuable for planning industry development strategies.

Although BAM does such industry surveys every two years, the methodology has changed so that making a direct comparison does not necessarily yield accurate information. But having said that, in 2016, the total revenue was less than $3 billion.

With a $5.1-billion contribution to the GDP, bioscience is not too far behind the $6.7 billion from the manufacturing sector.

“The results reinforce our message that bioscience is a big player in the provincial economy,” said Tracey Maconachie, the executive director of BAM.

Not surprisingly, ag biotech contributes the largest share of total industry revenue — 52 per cent — considering Manitoba’s large agricultural chemical and farm supplies wholesale sector. Biohealth contributed 43 per cent, with a couple of large companies contributing more than 70 per cent of that total, and the clean tech sector contributes four per cent.

While the total size of the bioscience sector is a testimony to the diversity of the provincial economy, the breadth of that sector on its own is also amazingly diverse — including large biotech companies like Emergent Biosolutions (the former Cangene) and Bausch Health (formerly Valeant); ag tech companies such as Farmers Edge, Conviron and new cannabis companies like Delta 9; and a host of newer, growing companies like Cerebra Health, Arterial Assessments and Exigence Technologies.

Maconachie said this kind of survey data is valuable for planning industry development strategies.

“We really rely on this to talk to funders and potential partners so we can help them better understand what the needs are,” Maconachie said. “It helps us justify and rationalize how we will prioritize our programming.”

Although the survey did find that many of the companies are ambitious and optimistic about their growth potential, it also showed there remains many of the traditional challenges that Manitoba companies have faced for some time.

Perhaps the most acute issue the survey illustrated was the difficulty many companies have in recruiting staff. More than 50 per cent of the total workforce of 14,437 currently employed in the industry hold a bachelor’s, master’s or PhD degree, which is higher than the provincial average in terms of employment levels in a province where only 25 per cent of the total population has a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A whopping 95 per cent of respondents said attracting employees at a supervisory or professional level was a major obstacle, 71 per cent said it was a problem attracting senior management and 81 per cent said the same about attracting employees at a non-management or non-supervisory level.

“We are starting to hear more discussion around workforce issues and it reinforces the need for us to work on those types of projects because this is going to have an impact on this industry down the road,” Maconachie said. “We will be doing a deeper dive on where the actual gaps are.”

For instance, when it comes to filling positions for chemical engineers, a problem that may become more acute with increasing sophistication in the agri-food sector is that no post-secondary institutions in Manitoba offer chemical engineering degrees.

Although respondents were less concerned about access to capital than they were two years ago, the total capital raised in 2017 was $376 million, a relatively modest amount in a capital-intense sector.

But while Maconachie said it may be an indication that Manitoba companies have become more skilled at accessing capital, the survey also found that only 22 per cent of Manitoba companies were using available government funding programs compared to the national average of 45 per cent.

BAM has been holding an annual event called Funding Day in partnership with some of the other industry sector councils to help match companies up with appropriate provincial and federal government funding programs.

“Business owners will do what is right for their business… but there are so many opportunities for Manitoba businesses that they need to at least be aware of,” Maconachie said.

“But these are low participation rates. We are chipping away. We try to increase awareness and exposure, and not just for bioscience companies. This says we have more work to do.”


Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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