Standing on Higher Ground

While around the world, banks collapsed, houses foreclosed and layoffs eviscerated the economy in 2009, Nova Scotia was largely untouched. Experts say that’s because of the province’s broad economic base, strategic location and talented work pool.

Laurie Cameron, the director general of policy advocacy and coordination at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), says the Bluenose business community has strengthened greatly over the past two decades, with particular muscular development in the advanced-material/advanced-manufacturing sector. That includes a recent blossoming in the health and medical-devices sector. “We really have the foundation of building a very strong cluster,” she says.

Consider Abdullah Kirumira. The Ugandan doctor was happily working in Maryland when his ship came sailing in. He happened to be in Baltimore with his family when a Nova Scotian ship (if memory serves him correctly, it was the Princess of Acadia) caught his eye. He went on board out of sheer curiosity.

“It displayed the province very well,” he recalls. By the time he left the boat, he had decided to move to Nova Scotia. “Mainly because it looked like a good place to raise children,” he explains.

Kirumira’s next move was to call Wolfville’s Acadia University, where he landed a job. In addition to being a very polite man taken by ocean vistas, Kirumira is also a world-renowned doctor who won the 2007 Bioscience Innovation Award from The Economist magazine (for his 1993 invention of a rapid HIV test that is sold internationally) and the Technology Pioneer award from the World Economic Forum in early 2009.

In 1999, he founded BioMedica Diagnostics in Windsor, Hants County, and the lab has become a global leader in developing innovative, life-saving technology and taking it to the developing world. Its flagship product, QuickCoag, has staved off countless heart attacks in more than 30 countries around the world by detecting blood clotting in patients. Demand is rapidly increasing and BioMedica announced a $500,000 expansion in April 2010. That will create 25 new full-time lab technician positions, on top of the existing 15.

BioMedica could be anywhere in the world, but it’s in Nova Scotia because of the brains produced by the surrounding universities, especially Acadia, and because Kirumira and his colleagues continue to be charmed by the province. “For companies like ours, the surroundings and the temperament of the town are quite conducive to thinking,” he says. “The government environment is also conducive for innovation.”

Brian Lowe agrees with Kirumira’s assessment. Lowe is vice-president of Halifax-based ImmunoVaccine Technologies. He’s also the chair of BioNova – the province’s life-science industry association, a board member of the university/college consortium Spring Board Inc., and he co-founded the First Angel Network of venture capitalists. “We have no problem recruiting expertise and talent locally and from around the world,” he says. “Our quality of life is good and we have an enriched talent pool of graduates.”

That pool has generated some incredible products. When industry and government challenged ImmunoVaccine’s Dr. Warwick Kimmins and his fellow scientists at Dalhousie University to create a humane way to control the seal population, they came up with a ‘Pill’ for seals. The single-dose contraceptive worked splendidly and Immunovaccine is now also helping control the monkey population in Hong Kong as well as the deer population at the Johnson Space Centre.

Kimmins and his researchers have since turned their attention to how vaccines can attack human diseases such as cancer. They recently received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for human clinical trials to inject patients with a single-dose therapeutic vaccine targeting breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.

It had dramatic results when tested on humanized mice. “We injected these mice with cancer cells. Huge tumours formed on the mice. We hit them with our vaccines and within 14 days, all the tumours disappeared and the mice became perfectly health,” Lowe says. He’s hoping it can have similar effects on humans.

“I feel better about this venture than anything in my life,” he adds. “To think that technology that started at Dalhousie University … can make an impact worldwide for mankind? That would be phenomenal.”

ACOA’s Laurie Cameron says the land and sea of Nova Scotia continues to be a critical part of the industrial strength. “Natural resources have always played a strong role in our rural communities,” she says. “Our goal here is to bring more innovative approaches to how we look at that resource. How can we ensure that they remain sustainable and strong players in their communities?”

Cameron says ACOA investments in the lobster fishery are helping source new export markets beyond the domestic market. “It’s to broaden the industry’s knowledge base on where they can play in the international arena, because we really are very much in a global economy now. Our trading partners are changing, our supply chains are changing.”

Ocean Nutrition is a great example of that international activity. It’s a leading supplier of marine-based natural ingredients to the global dietary supplement and healthy food markets. In recent years, it’s expanded its Nova Scotia operations in Mulgrave and Dartmouth. In January 2010, it was named Business of the Year Award at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce’s Halifax Business Awards.

Tourism is another bright spot, as it continues to pull in about $1.3-billion annually in Atlantic Canada, with Halifax attracting the lion’s share. Recent reports suggest it may be losing its grip as the top Maritime cruise-ship destination to Saint John, New Brunswick, but Cameron doesn’t see it that way. “I know there’s been a tremendous amount of effort gone into building our cruise industry in Nova Scotia, both with Sydney and Halifax,” Cameron says. As for the apparent rise of Saint John, it’s a case of a rising tide lifts all boats.

Stephen Lund, president of Nova Scotia Business Inc., is a fan of the province’s aerospace and defence industry and its financial-services sector.

Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defence companies, has operated in Nova Scotia since the early 1980s. Last spring, it announced plans to expand its Dartmouth operations by 100 jobs. That would more than double its workforce, with most of the growth coming in positions for software engineers and computer systems analysts.

Tom Digan, president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Canada, said then that Lockheed was committed to growing its Nova Scotia operations. “We started looking at what would be the most value to our ultimate customer, the Canadian Navy, who are here in quite a presence, and also what would be the place where I could attract the new labour I need,” Digan said when the expansion was announced. “It all came together for this opportunity … to put our expansion [in Nova Scotia].”

The financial-services sector is Nova Scotia’s second fastest-growing employment sector (after health care). It also offers some of the highest wages in the province. Citco Fund Services, a global leader in hedge fund administration with 76 offices around the world, opened a Halifax branch in 2007, bringing a few hundred jobs with it.

“They could be anywhere in the world. They don’t have to come here. We have to make a story that makes sense for them to be here,” Lund says.

Flagstone Reinsurance Holdings, a Bermuda-based global reinsurance and insurance company, opened an office in Halifax in 2005. “Halifax was Flagstone’s first global move out of Bermuda…,” said CEO David Brown. “From talent and technology, to competitive business costs, there is no question that Nova Scotia will continue to be key to our long-term success.”

Last year, Flagstone announced plans to recruit another 80 staff to Nova Scotia. Brown credited the business-friendly environment, the large talent pool provided by the universities and the family-friendly, affordable nature of life on the East Coast.

“We live in a global economy. If we think for a second we can stick our heads in the sand and be successful with what we have here, we’re in a dream world. Countries that do that, from Cuba to North Korea, it doesn’t seem to work,” Lund says. To continue to grow, the province needs to attract investment, increase exports and increase productivity.

“Our productivity numbers are not good compared to the rest of Canada and Canada compared to the U.S.,” he cautions. To strengthen the existing industries and grow new ones, Lund says Nova Scotia has to rely on one of its oldest exports: storytelling. “We have a good story to tell and we know how to tell it,” Lund says.

What exactly is that story? It’s a feel-good account that says doing business in Halifax, compared to Singapore, Brazil, New York, London or Toronto, means getting good people for a reasonable cost of business, low turnover and a good quality of life. Think of it as the perfect combination of a happy ending/to-be-continued type of tale.

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About Jon Tattrie

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and writer based in Halifax. He's a board member of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia and regularly speaks to universities, colleges and schools on journalism and writing. His debut novel, Black Snow, was published by Pottersfield Press in April 2009. His first non-fiction book, The Hermit of Africville, was released in the summer of 2010.

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