More than a sleepy bureaucratic town, Ottawa is shaping up to be a vibrant life sciences research hub

Better healthcare
Research and innovation
Health sciences

By Sylvain Charbonneau

Vice-President, Research and Innovation, University of Ottawa

Sylvain Charbonneau
Students working in the Lees pavilion
Putting the National Capital Region’s life sciences ecosystem on the map

Note: this op-ed was first published in the Hill Times’ Policy Briefing edition on September 27th 2023

On September 28, the University of Ottawa will mark the official opening of its new life sciences complex, a home for the Faculty of Health Sciences. The $130-million smart facility, with its cutting-edge laboratories and experiential simulation centres, will support life-changing discovery and smarter, more collaborative care.

The inauguration also marks the next milestone in uOttawa’s new era as a health research powerhouse – one that will reap benefits for Canada and the world.

Ottawa has a reputation for being a sleepy bureaucratic town, but our National Capital Region is actually home to a thriving life sciences ecosystem, and the University of Ottawa is determined to build on it.

Our city’s health sciences ecosystem, which is too often overlooked, represents over 6,000 people employed in more than 140 companies in the life and health sciences, including the biotech-pharma, digital health and medtech sectors. Ottawa’s postsecondary institutions and hospital affiliated research institutes employ over 6,500 researchers and clinicians, attracting over $380M in research funding each year. Altogether, the economic impact of the health sector is over $2B annually.

As anyone who has visited an emergency room knows – and as the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians recently made clear to the deputy ministers of health – Canada needs more “innovative, integrated and effective approaches to health-care delivery.” [1]

The University of Ottawa’s life sciences research community is ready to meet that challenge.

Already, the university is among the top five research-intensive schools in the country. Our Faculty of Medicine ranks among the top three nationally for research intensity, and Ottawa is the fourth largest hub for clinical trials in Canada.

Sylvain Charbonneau headshot

“The cutting-edge and interdisciplinary facilities at the new Health Sciences Pavilion will allow students and researchers to break down the silos that permeate today’s health-care culture.”

Sylvain Charbonneau

— Vice-President, Research and Innovation, University of Ottawa

Last spring, the federal government recognized uOttawa’s commitment to biomedical research by investing $109 million in the Brain-Heart Interconnectome. This initiative explores the intimate connections between the heart and the brain, helping researchers discover how conditions like heart failure and memory loss are intertwined, but treatable. That’s one more way we’re breaking down those silos.

In the coming months, the university will break ground on the Advanced Medical Research Centre (AMRC), which will anchor the Brain-Heart Interconnectome and the Canadian Pandemic Preparedness Hub, two major pan-Canadian research initiatives.

It will also house the Ottawa Health Innovation Hub, which will facilitate access to venture capital, incubate entrepreneurs and accelerate commercialization to better patient care.

The AMRC – considered the largest single investment in the university's history – will attract and retain the best and brightest leaders in biomedical research and support their spinoff companies. It will also support uOttawa’s expansion of clinical trials and vaccine manufacturing capacity, a hole in our healthcare system that the global pandemic viscerally underscored.

With the research and development carried out by the Centre for Infection, Immunity and Inflammation and the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network – also led from the new Centre – Canada will be better prepared to respond to future pandemics.

It’s not hard to imagine the incalculable gains for individuals and families from these investments if our researchers are successful in developing vaccines that prevent death and chronic illness from new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus; or if they reverse the memory loss of a parent who suffered a heart attack.

These major investments demonstrate uOttawa’s fierce commitment to advancing research and innovation in the life sciences. As we build momentum for this new era of life sciences research in Ottawa, we invite private and public partners to join us in our commitment to research excellence that saves lives.

Sylvain Charbonneau is the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, at the University of Ottawa

[1] Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, Addressing the Crisis in Canadian Emergency Departments