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The Toronto Biomedical Cluster

With U of T as its academic anchor, the region has emerged as a global hub of biomedical innovation

In July, the University of Toronto received the first award in the federal government’s new Canada First Research Excellence Fund – a historic $114 million, to strengthen our position, in collaboration with our partner hospitals, as a global leader in regenerative medicine.

Many are surprised to learn that the Toronto region is home to the third-largest biomedical cluster in North America, after San Francisco and Boston. It is striking not only because of its size, but also its diversity. We enjoy world-class strength in everything from immunology and vaccines to cancer care, children’s medicine, cardiac science and brain research.

The region also hosts a large and dynamic group of firms in biomedical technologies, devices and apps. Underpinning this cluster are several key foundational assets. U of T is the primary research and teaching hub, home to the country’s largest faculty of medicine, as well as a full range of health science faculties: Nursing, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Public Health, Social Work and more. Add to this the Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, and the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, two remarkable interdisciplinary research and teaching centres that draw on our convergent strengths in medicine, engineering, dentistry, cell biology, computer science, chemistry, physics and related fields.

Together, these faculties, along with our Mississauga Academy of Medicine, anchor a phenomenal Toronto Academic Health Sciences Network that includes our nine fully affiliated, partner hospitals – each with a stellar global reputation – as well as other community affiliate hospitals in the region. Accelerators, incubators and innovation hubs – including our own Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Centre for the Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, and the MaRS Discovery District – provide space, support services, capital and a nurturing environment for startups. And MaRS Innovation links more than a dozen local universities, hospitals and research institutes in a single commercialization ecosystem.

How does one measure the significance of this cluster? One obvious way is through the scale and impact of its research. In all the health and life sciences, only Harvard University publishes more research than U of T and its affiliated hospitals – and when it comes to impact, publications from the University of Toronto are cited more frequently than research from all other universities except Harvard and Johns Hopkins.

Another way to appraise research quality and performance is by looking at who our researchers partner with, and how frequently. A recent editorial in Nature argued that collaboration among researchers on a global scale is becoming essential in fostering scientific progress: “Excellence seeks excellence, so elite national universities are also leading international collaborators.” In our case, our most frequent global collaborators include the likes of Harvard, Oxford, University College London and Johns Hopkins.

Why does this matter? Quite obviously, our prosperity depends on our ability to access and use knowledge; not just the knowledge we produce locally, but also knowledge that is produced in other leading centres of research and innovation around the world. Our collective prosperity hinges upon collaboration. The University of Toronto and its affiliated hospitals are vital portals to global knowledge networks, bringing important benefits to Toronto and Canada.

Finally, there are signs that investors around the world are betting on the science and startups emerging from U of T. Firms such as Xagenic (founded by Prof. Shana Kelley of Pharmacy), ChipCare (from the lab of Prof. Stewart Aitchison, Electrical & Computer Engineering), and Northern Biologics (co-founded by the Donnelly Centre’s Prof. Dev Sidhu and other U of T colleagues) have recently attracted significant venture capital from San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas and other global centres. With developments like these, the foundations for our future prosperity are increasingly clear.

Adapted from an address to the Empire Club of Canada, given on May 22, 2015.

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  1. One Response to “ The Toronto Biomedical Cluster ”

  2. Dr Orison A Thores says:

    My postgraduate training was spread between the University of Glasgow, UBC and U of T, before fellowships in Medicine and Public Health. I am grateful to all three for the grounding I received, but I hold a special place for the career opportunities Toronto gave me -- in particular working as a principal program adviser and manager in public health with the Ontario Ministry of Health through most of the 1970s, mainly on programs for women and children.

    I was delighted on a recent visit to observe some of the progress achieved in Toronto and to realize how dynamic the city now is and important a role U of T has played in this.

    Later in my career, I was an adviser to the World Health Organization's European region in immunization and communicable diseases. I was also a departmental member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization in the U.K. and an adviser to the Public Health Leadership Society and the The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control in London. At all, I was aware of the important role Canada, and Toronto in particular, played in medical scientific progress.

    On a recent visit to Toronto I remarked to one of my senior alumnus colleagues that I was surprised to see that U of T was not a member of Universitas 21, an international network of universities, although both UBC and the University of Glasgow were. In view of the scientific and research pre-eminence of U of T I wondered whether thought might be given to correcting this situation.