Brazil's pharmaceutical giant launches +$50 million R&D centre in GTA

While casting its corporate eye around the world for growth opportunities, Biolab Farmacêutica's gaze landed on Ontario. In 2015, the Brazilian company announced an investment of more than $50 million to build a research and development centre in the Greater Toronto Area. Two years later, it made good on those plans, launching its new quarters in Mississauga in October 2017.

Biolab Farmacêutica manufacturing plant, Brazil

The 1,300-square-metre facility is an extension of Biolab's Brazilian R&D centre in Itapecerica da Serra, a municipality in the state of São Paulo. Founded in 1997—when it manufactured just four drugs and had a sales force of 69 employees—Biolab is now one of Brazil's largest pharmaceutical firms, specializing in prescription drugs for cardiology, dermatology, gynecology, orthopedics, rheumatology and pediatrics. With a focus on research, development and innovation, it has about 2,600 employees, more than 100 products in its portfolio, and has filed more than 270 patents. It has the capacity to produce 100 million units (of various drug and cosmetic products) per year.

Biolab has a business development office in Miami, Florida, but the new Ontario centre is its first foray into conducting research and development outside of Brazil. The Mississauga centre will initially be staffed with 16 to 20 specialists—primarily scientists and pharmaceutical specialists. Paulo Wickbold Marques, Head of Canadian Operations for Biolab Pharma Canada, says the number of employees will likely reach 50 or 60 within five years.

Paulo Wickbold Marques, Head of Canadian Operations, Biolab Pharma Canada

Collaborative support from Ontario

When Biolab first decided to set up a presence in Canada, its leaders were interested in identifying a location with an innovative atmosphere that would offer incentives and ample opportunities for partnerships, which are an important component of Biolab's growth strategy. Although Biolab hasn't yet established formal partnerships in Canada, the potential to do so was a factor in its decision to locate in Ontario.

"We regularly look for partners in various sectors, from other pharmaceutical companies to academia, laboratories, international research centres and multinationals—and it was apparent from the beginning that Ontario, and the Greater Toronto Area in particular, was going to be an excellent place to establish relationships," says Wickbold.

"From the get-go, everybody involved was extremely helpful: boards of trade, the Ontario Investment Office, City of Mississauga and the Brazil-Canada Chamber of Commerce (BCCC)." Early in its decision process, the company even received a visit from Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who travelled to Brazil.

Toronto Global was instrumental as well, says Wickbold. "They were our first contact with Canada, and they were able to recommend the service providers we needed, like legal firms and accountants."

Setting up where innovation happens

Deciding where in Canada to locate did not prove to be difficult.

"We went straight to Ontario," says Wickbold. "Once we discovered what Ontario and the GTA were doing to make sure the area became a life sciences hub—and we met people and toured facilities like MaRS and the University of Toronto—the region started to make a lot of sense."

Jayme Alexandre Dias de Lima, Head of Corporate Strategy, Biolab Farmacêutica

Jayme Alexandre Dias de Lima, Biolab's Head of Corporate Strategy, says his first trip to Toronto in 2015 gave him a clear sense of the advantages of Ontario's life sciences ecosystem.

It's fascinating because all of the stakeholders—the regulatory agency, venture capitalists, laboratories, start-ups, other companies, government—have their eyes on the same goal. Everyone is trying to make Ontario a world-class innovation hub for the pharmaceutical industry. We could feel that, and it made a difference for us. The key to our strategy is innovation, so we have to be where innovation happens—and Ontario is that place.

The 16 to 20 first employees will all be Canadians, says Wickbold, who will be the only Brazilian for now. The company is still recruiting. In fact, staffing the new centre will be Biolab's key challenge in Canada in the short term. De Lima and Wickbold are looking for people with the required level of expertise who will be a good fit with the firm's culture.

"We intend to make full use of Canada's impressive talent pool," says Wickbold.

The start of a something great

Biolab logo

Biolab has about 200 products in its pipeline right now. As for what the new Canadian R&D centre will work on, that's still being worked out. "We'll be looking for opportunities wherever they may show up," says de Lima. "But the focus will be on innovative products that have market potential in both countries."

The next few months will be a flurry of preparation before the true work gets underway. De Lima and Wickbold say it will take several months to accomplish the required validation steps, which include testing equipment, creating documentation and ensuring the company meets Health Canada standards. The facility and its new staff should be ready to swing into innovation mode early in 2018.

It's a big moment for Biolab and for the Brazilian pharmaceutical industry, says Wickbold. "We're very excited to be here and to get started. It's the beginning of a great relationship between Biolab and Canada."

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