The Germs of Growth: Montreal’s Promising Biotech Startups


Montreal is brimming with academic activity and the innovation centres popping up around the city are a fertile ground for biotech research. Organizations are trying to harness the innovation generated within the city’s educational institutions, some of which are at Concordia University.

Two biotech companies have been collaborating with Concordia’s District 3 innovation centre: Hyasynth Bio, a biotech company aiming to develop engineered yeast that can produce synthetic cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD); and BiogeniQ, an award-winning health management company that uses genetic information, family and clinical history to help its clients.

“Synthetic biology isn’t just a new or better set of genetic engineering techniques. It also refers to the social and economic aspects of life that are changed by those techniques,” Hyasynth CEO Sarah Choukah told the The Link.

She praised the young company’s culture and openness toward research, adding that “synthetic biology is the ground of very enriching and passionate discussions on the new kinds of microscopic ‘critters’ we can invent, what it really means to ‘invent’ or ‘program’ life this way and how we came to develop those notions on life.”

Hyasynth can sell these synthetic cannabinoid medicines to companies, like GW Pharmaceuticals, who are interested in carrying out clinical trials on patients with many illnesses from cancer pain to spasticity or epilepsy.

Hyasynth plans to work alongside pharmaceutical giants by producing the isolated molecular compounds required for testing in a much shorter time frame than farming plants would take.

Collaboration is at the heart of the innovation. For those with no science background, citizens non-profit science groups such as Bricobio exist to exchange science knowledge and encourage the inclusion of anyone curious. They occasionally host workshops and recently taught members how to build a 400x microscope for $10.

“DIY labs are actually blooming all around the world,” said Logan Schwartz of Bricobio, a year-old community currently preparing a non-profit incorporation application.

“The aim of those associative labs is to offer a meeting place where people could work on multidisciplinary projects,” Schwartz said. “[By creating] a place dedicated to the education and knowledge-sharing associated with biotechnology on an open-source basis—where people could learn and exchange their expertise by working together on cool and intellectually challenging sciences projects.”

“Hyasynth emerged out of Bricobio,” Choukah explained, adding that the members organized their first meeting using an online hosting platform called Synbiota. After a successful four-month accelerator program called Indie Bio in Ireland, the Hyasynth team returned to Montreal last fall.

Though Hyasynth Bio was born of Bricobio, the teams decided to keep each company’s identity separate, she said.

Some organizations take things to the next level by applying the can-do hacker attitude to projects among clinicians and technology experts.

For one, Hacking Health focuses on rapid construction of low-cost prototypes. It also hosts workshops and hackathons across Canada. Its interdisciplinary, experimental approach has guided the creation of projects such as remote physiotherapy care plans as well as education and communication apps for patients and doctors.

Montreal’s academic environment also received praise from Inception Sciences Chief Operating Officer Clare Ozawa. She says the environment creates a favorable market for venture and accelerator companies, like Inception Sciences, looking to grow and capitalize on profitable biosciences assets.

As the population and pace of technological advancements increases every year, the potential benefits of learning to manipulate biology continues to captivate the imaginations of institutions and citizens alike.

“I hope that by encouraging a maximum of people to have access to knowledge and giving them tools to use it efficiently, DIY associations may become the incubator of tomorrow’s ideas that may change our world,” Schwartz said.

This article was updated on January 22th, 2015. The original version of this article attributed quotes about Bricobio to Philippe Castonguay. The Link regrets the error.