UNB planning Health and Technology District to catalyze healthtech innovation in Atlantic Canada

Jessica Galang
December 16, 2020

A new partnership between the University of New Brunswick (UNB), Opportunities New Brunswick and Surrey, B.C.-based real estate firm Lark Group is aiming to build a new Health and Technology District in Saint John. 

The three organizations have signed a letter of intent to build a 75,000-square-foot building near the UNB campus, adjacent to the Saint John Regional Hospital. This is the first phase of the project that they are finalizing, with plans to add three more districts over the next couple of years. 

The District will house physicians running clinics, entrepreneurs building health technology, and UNB students and academic researchers under one roof. The goal is to provide an environment where researchers can find opportunities to commercialize their technology and allow entrepreneurs to understand what patients and clinicians actually need more quickly. 

Rowena Rizzotti, vice-president of healthcare and innovation at Lark Group, says that the clinics operating within these Districts can make it easier for researchers to find volunteers for clinical trials. 

“In building these types of innovative clusters, oftentimes, these communities are built around an anchor,” says Rizzotti. “What we see in New Brunswick is anchoring next to a large public asset, like a hospital or health environment or a university, then you build the ecosystem around that.” 

Creating a hub for digital health is especially timely now, as COVID-19 has accelerated the demand for remote healthcare technology — for example, people could not “wrap their minds around” the virtual doctor’s appointment before COVID-19, says Petra Hauf, vice-president of UNB Saint John.

“It’s actually easier to move forward on new innovative approaches to health now than it was before COVID,” Hauf says. 

The Lark Group has already built a Health and Technology District in Surrey, which includes eight buildings adjacent to Surrey Memorial Hospital. The Lark Group will use this District as a model for the Saint John district. 

B.C., where the Lark Group is based, is home to the Canadian government’s Digital Technology Supercluster, which has a focus on improving healthcare through technology, including using wearables to monitor frailty in aging patients. Rizzotti and Hauf say there will be partnerships between the two regions through the Health Districts. 

“We've already reached out for assistance through CyberNB and other collaborative partnerships through the university that will help to benefit us here in British Columbia,” Rizzotti says, referring to the Fredericton-based network of cybersecurity professionals.

New Brunswick has spent several years making strategic investments in cybersecurity — a key component of making digital health solutions secure. In 2018, the New Brunswick government unveiled a cybersecurity strategy, earmarking $507.7 million over five years to the strategy. Since 2017, UNB has opened two major cybersecurity hubs, one with the National Research Council of Canada for research, and one for research and collaboration with IBM.  

“This experience in growing knowledge in those areas and collaborating on a large scale across the country has given us the foundation to expand that knowledge into another area — and health and technology is a huge, growing sector,” says Hauf. 

Atlantic Canada’s innovation ecosystem has also been growing quickly. In November, NASDAQ announced that it would purchase St. John’s-based fraud detection company, Verafin, for US$2.75 billion, making it Atlantic Canada’s first official unicorn — albeit one whose ownership is no longer domestic. There’s also a lot of investment momentum in the region; in 2019, Atlantic Canada raised $608 million in venture capital funding, four times that of 2018

A collaborative opportunity

“It's a really positive moment,” says Kathryn Lockhart, CEO of the Moncton-based Propel accelerator. “I believe that we are slowly changing the profile of Atlantic Canada with the successes that we're seeing.”

Lockhart says the collaborative environment of the Health District could tackle health challenges related to New Brunswick’s aging population — nearly 20% of the province’s citizens are over 65, its fastest-growing demographic. Rizzotti says another strength of the region is its smaller size, allowing it to have a more “cohesive” healthcare system compared to larger provinces that may have more independent health systems. 

“All of the raw ingredients are already there, for the most part, but bringing it to life and taking it to that next level would be incredibly impactful for our region,” Lockhart says. 

The Health District is also coming at a time when UNB is rejigging its health programs to include elements of social innovation and business. This year, UNB launched a 10-year Toward 2030 plan, which includes pillars focused on enhancing the strength of research, boosting experiential learning and fostering knowledge transfer and commercialization. Hauf says creating the Health and Technology District falls into all of the UNB Toward 2030 objectives, including plans to allow companies to collaborate and work with students.

UNB also launched its Integrated Health Initiative program focused on health education and research, which includes a new multidisciplinary bachelor of health program that combines business management and humanities. The university aims to create five new research chairs focused on health policy, health management, digital health, aging in the community and child rights and health.

“[This], in turn, allows our students to have an experiential learning experience,” says Hauf. “It gives the companies here early access to the next generation of the workforce that they can train and can connect with during the time of their education.”

As the Health District project is in the early stages, Hauf and Rizzotti said there are no details yet on how much the project will cost and how much each partner will contribute. At this phase, Hauf says UNB is open to letters of intent from private sector companies, physicians and health care providers who are interested in becoming a tenant. 

Lowen says that years of New Brunswick’s investment in areas like cybersecurity, and government programs dedicated to supporting talent in the region, is proof that the province knows how to put the “puzzle pieces” together to succeed. 

“The fact that they've been able to do that shows that an initiative dedicated towards the Health and Technology district...it’s just a matter of time before that succeeds and becomes very strong,” says Lowen. 


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