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Thinking Big

Thinking Big

Merging two disparate technologies, a team of chemists and engineers created a revolutionary new tool for cell biologists

In 2001, just as a new scientific field called systems biology was emerging, Toronto chemist Dr. Scott Tanner, who was working in private industry, happened to meet biologist Dr. John Dick, a senior scientist at the city’s University Health Network. It was the first of several coincidences that helped lay the groundwork for a Canadian success story – the development of DVS Sciences, a pioneering biotechnology company in Markham, Ontario. When the two scientists were introduced, Dr. Tanner was working with atomic mass spectrometry, a technology previously used only to identify the atomic composition of matter – arsenic in water, for example. He says Dr. Dick pointed to the importance in biomedical research of looking at individual cells separately. Their subsequent collaboration, funded by Genome Canada, led Dr. Tanner and his team of chemists and engineers to invent a game-changing laboratory tool: a protein analysis system that provided the first detailed pictures of what’s going on with single, often rare, cells at the molecular level. Dr. Dick’s lab bought the first of about 80 instruments now in use around the globe.

Thinking Big
In 2015, Genome Canada launched a Disruptive Innovation in Genomics Initiative to support ideas for cutting-edge technologies that are truly transformative — capable of displacing an existing technology, disrupting an existing market or creating a new one.

Without early investors prepared to accept some risk, however, Dr. Tanner says he would not now have a commercial technology “poised to provide a quantum step toward the provision of personalized healthcare.” Fortuitously, Genome Canada launched a competition in 2005 for new genomics-related research technologies, encouraging “novel, even revolutionary, approaches.” Dr. Tanner’s proposal was one of 13 that made the cut and shared a total of $9.4 million.

At that time, says Naveed Aziz, Genome Canada’s director of technology programs, researchers were required to show proof of principle for their proposals to be successful. In future, they will be invited to present ideas.

In February 2014, DVS Sciences was acquired by California-based Fluidigm for $207.5 million. This acquisition was a win-win for Fluidigm and Canada, as the company will continue to employ 64 full-time staff in R&D and instrument manufacturing in Markham. The facility is expanding due to product demand, and has been recruiting young, talented and highly trained Canadians.