Nova Scotia’s life sciences sector is one of the big winners of the announcement last week that Innovacorp has received fresh capital for its venture capital funding.

The province announced it will provide $40 million over the next eight years to the Nova Scotia First Fund, the main investment vehicle for the provincial innovation agency.

Innovacorp is one of the few investors in the province for such ventures as biotechnology, medical devices and other biology-related enterprises.

Innovacorp life sciences investment manager Dr. Lidija Marusic has been overseeing investments for almost a decade.

“Over 50 per cent of our early-stage awards that we’ve provided to commercialize university research in recent years have gone to life sciences technologies,” she said. “University researchers are able to leverage those funds to gain other funding.”

The sector is growing in importance. Recent research by Entrevestor has revealed that last year, 13 life sciences companies were formed in Atlantic Canada, compared with six in 2014.

This makes life sciences the second largest innovation sector in the region, after IT.

Developing new medical treatments and drugs is expensive and time-consuming, but life sciences companies in the region are being aided by the increasing ease of virtual working.

“People can be based elsewhere and work with you,” Marusic said.

“A lot of work after the initial discovery stage uses specialized companies that do pre-clinical and clinical studies to regulatory agencies’ specifications. That work can be outsourced . . . Twenty years ago, companies used to do almost everything in-house . . . Contracting out diminishes risk.”

Marusic feels the sector needs more experienced people to focus on commercializing technology. Finding them isn’t easy.

“The region is small. We don’t have a big number of mature biotech companies…It’s a challenge attracting people to come here and take on a business in a high-risk sector. In a larger community, people know that if a business fails they can find something else.

“But regional companies are finding people who have left, gained experience, and want to return.”

Born and raised in Croatia, Marusic holds a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Zagreb, a PhD in molecular genetics from the International School for Advanced Studies in Italy and an MBA from McMaster University in Ontario.

During her post-doctoral studies, she worked on the molecular biology of cancer in collaboration with California company Geron Corporation. The goal was to commercialize research based on the role of the enzyme telomerase, which lengthens cell life and helps cancer cells replicate.

It was the first time Marusic was exposed to the commercialization of research and she found it fascinating.

In the year 2000, she got a job with Toronto-based MDS Capital Corp. (now Lumira Capital) and its seed fund MedInnova Partners, and began working with Atlantic Canadian university researchers to commercialize their biomedical technologies.

“I would go to universities, especially Dalhousie and Memorial because they have medical schools and do a lot of medical research. For the university researchers, their companies often started as one bench in their laboratory. I felt my training and education as a scientist were essential for my role.”

In 2006 Marusic joined Innovacorp. She still finds the work exciting and challenging, especially research that relates to the brain.

“Neurological diseases are a particular challenge,” she said. “The brain is the most complex organ in our bodies and the hardest to unlock.”

Marusic said the region’s university research has strengthened in the last decade.

“Universities have improved infrastructure and employed new faculty oriented to the commercialization of research.

“Life sciences in the province is a maturing sector but we need to build more links outside the region to help with company funding and growth.”

She stresses the importance of research.

“We may not see the application of research right away, but pure research is important. If you don’t have a broad base of basic research and discovery you won’t have discoveries that are cutting edge and life-changing.”