The pandemic ignited an already strong medical equipment industry in B.C. But entering the sector remains tough

The B.C. medical device industry may be tough to break into, but it offers many opportunities.

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Nancy Paris is director of Make+, a design and innovation lab at BCIT that helps companies bring medical devices to market

Despite regulatory, talent and other obstacles, medical offers plenty of opportunity

At the height of the worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) last year, outdoor gear specialist Mustang Survival realized it could help. Mustang makes the majority of its flotation devices and waterproof clothing overseas. But the Burnaby-based company manufactures its most technical products—like dry suits for search-and-rescue crews—at its B.C. factory. A Level 3 surgical gown requires the same seam-sealing technology as a dry suit.

“We realized we’re a unique manufacturer,” recalls presidentJason Leggatt. “We are one of the very few companies still running sewing machines in the Lower Mainland.”

By the end of March 2020, Mustang was sewing gowns for Vancouver Coastal Health and the federal government. That provided a welcome income stream during COVID-19 lockdown, and the company saw the potential to diversify into improving PPE.

A year later, that enthusiasm is gone. The medical community pushed back at the cost of domestic manufacturing, health care’s rigorous regulations were burdensome, and Mustang’s core market was “on fire,” Leggatt says. When the company finished its PPE contract with the federal government this March, it exited the medical equipment industry. 

Mustang’s experience is typical for businesses that tried a similar pivot in the pandemic, says Nancy Paris, director of Make+, a design and innovation lab at BCIT that helps companies bring medical devices to market. Although medical is a challenging industry to enter, Paris explains, it offers plenty of opportunities, particularly in B.C. and especially now.

“It’s a good business to be in,” she says. “It’s not as susceptible to downturns as a lot of other industries, and there’s huge money.”

The B.C. life sciences sector, which spans pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical devices, was gaining momentum even before COVID. A provincial government report found that it grew by 5.6 percent in 2018, more than double the industrial aggregate. The province’s fastest-growing industry that year, it also outpaced its peers across the country.

B.C. companies and researchers have developed several globally adopted innovations, including GlideScope, a video-equipped intubation assistant; and Prostalac, an antibiotic-loaded hip implant. Victoria-based StarFish Medical is a leading designer and maker of medical devices, and the province is Canada’s No. 2 exporter of medical instruments.

The shortage of PPE and ventilators early in the pandemic inspired several businesses to ask Paris for advice on joining the industry. “One of the biggest takeaways is that you have to commit as a company to understanding and following the regulatory pathway that medical devices are developed under,” she says. For instance, a gaming company came to her with a well-developed idea. But it hadn’t built in the security features required for medical devices, so it had to start again.

Most business that Paris worked with saw the challenges—including the need to hire specialized employees to manage regulations and standards—and decided not to pivot. She says it was an easier shift for companies already working in the medical space. Starfish, which had never built a ventilator before, quickly brought one to market. TRIUMF, the particle accelerator facility at UBC, partnered with scientists and labs in Canada, the U.S. and Italy to develop its own ventilator.

COVID also improved the business case for other devices. Rostrum Medical Innovations‘ VQm Pulmonary Health Monitor will replace the standard slow, invasive blood test to measure lung health with real-time monitoring. “It’s important information for doctors deciding if a patient needs a ventilator,” says Awni Ayoubi, the Vancouver company’s president and CEO. “The pandemic accelerated the need for the device.”

But it didn’t make growing a company here any easier. Rostrum is the fourth medical device business that Ayoubi has built in B.C. Bureaucracy is the top stumbling block, he says. For example, getting a clinical trial approved in this province is so onerous that Ayoubi does all of his testing in the U.S.

Complex regulations were just one hurdle that Life SciencesBC identified in a 2021 report looking at how medical device makers could help B.C.’s economic recovery, says Wendy Hurlburt, president and CEOof the industry group. Other obstacles: recruiting and retaining skilled staff, especially leadership; a critical shortage of commercial lab space; challenges accessing markets; fragmented data sources; and difficulty attracting capital.

The latter has changed as quickly as the pandemic. “It used to be only specialized experts were interested in the life sciences,” says Paul Geyer, CEO of Nimbus Synergies, a B.C. business accelerator program focused on the life sciences. “Now investors of all kinds are out in droves.”

B.C.-based life sciences companies raised a record $2 billion last year, according to Life Sciences BC and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. Venture capital investment quadrupled, says Geyer, who thinks the interest is here to stay.

For Mustang Survival, the foray into medical had plenty of upside. The experience of producing something different will make it better at its core products, president Leggatt thinks. But the biggest payoff was in company morale. “Making the pivot was the right thing to do,” he says. “Everyone felt what we were doing was important. That pride is tremendously powerful.”

Life Is Good

B.C. was home to about 2,050 life sciences companies in 2018, of which 1,120 had employees

~58% – Research, testing and medical laboratories
~31% – Medical devices and equipment
~12% – Drugs and pharmaceuticals

The sector paid some $1.2 billion in wages in 2018, up 10.7% YoY, the highest growth rate in the country and well above the national average of 8.8%

93%, or $88 million, of B.C.’s medical instruments exports for 2018 went to the U.S.

With 83% and 81%, respectively, of total market share that year, B.C. was Canada’s top exporter of ultraviolet/infrared ray equipment and artificial body parts

Source: BC Life Sciences Update 2021, Life Sciences BC and Greater Vancouver Board of Trade