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UVic bio-science innovation hub opens in Saanich Plaza

The hub is designed as a collaborative workspace where bio-science companies and entrepreneurs can connect with researchers and access shared tools and resources.
Karolina Valente, of VoxCell BioInnovation, at the UVic Innovation Hub. VoxCell BioInnovation uses 3-D bioprinting to create human-like tissue to test cancer drugs. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

It sounds like the premise for a high-brow reality show — watch what happens when you take the brightest minds and confine them to 1,200-square-feet of workrooms in a Saanich shopping mall.

But the University of Victoria is putting it into practice this week as the doors of its BioInnovation Hub opened Wednesday in Saanich Plaza.

The hub, a partnership with Vancouver Island Life Sciences, has been designed as a collaborative workspace where bio-science companies and entrepreneurs can connect with researchers and access shared tools and resources in the name of advancing health and life-sciences innovation.

It’s a physical meeting spot for companies and entrepreneurs to connect with researchers and the broader university community. It is also a conduit for them to access resources on campus.

“It’s a connection service and a portal or access point to the university,” said Lisa Kalynchuk, UVic’s vice-president of research and innovation. “If they have an idea, if they’re looking for university expertise, if they’re looking for support for a start-up, if they’re looking for a workshop on entrepreneurship or venture capital or if they’re just looking maybe to access labs or equipment that we have on campus and they don’t know how to do that.”

Kalynchuk said it could be a one-stop shop, depending on what people need, adding the collaborative space could lead to great things.

“When we sort of think about where we are right now as a society, with all of the pressing challenges that we’re trying to confront, we’re only going to solve these issues if we work together,” she said. “So this is the university bringing its expertise and inviting members of the community to bring their expertise. Let’s talk about what we can all bring collectively and let’s try to find some solutions.”

For Karolina Valente, chief executive of VoxCell, the hub is a great resource, offering much more than a space to work.

“It’s almost like providing us a space that we don’t just work on our own project, but also collaborate with other companies — that’s another thing that is very important for start-ups, having that partnership with other groups,” she said. “I think having this place available right now for us, not to just execute our work, but also to engage with other people and to see what is out there, is a key point.”

Valente’s two-year-old company VoxCell was born on the UVic campus. It’s on the cutting edge of oncology research as it creates human-like vascular tissue with cancer to be used to test new drugs.

“The idea is that pharmaceutical companies would then use that piece of tissue, this artificial tissue, to test drugs in a more reliable way,” said Valente. “This really came from the fact that there is no better way to test drugs nowadays.”

VoxCell’s tissue is unique in that it includes artificially created blood vessels, which allows for testing of chemotherapy drugs. “Most of them are injected through the vasculature. Now they can be injected through the blood vessels of this tissue, so we are one step closer to mimicking what happens inside the human body,” she said.

The company recently raised $1.3 million in an early funding round and is in the process of testing ahead of going to market as early as next year.

The hub will be a second home for companies like VoxCell, as it can act as a short-term incubator for early-stage firms, a place to showcase new technologies and offer shared office space and resources.

There will also be space for companies and professional services in the life sciences and biotech sector, and UVic representatives to foster university-industry connections and access to on-campus resources like equipment and talent.

“We’re really excited because we’re building an innovation network in the community,” said Kalynchuk. “It’s a big deal because it brings the university into the community.”

It is the third in a series of innovation hubs, following on the success of the Coast Capital Innovation Centre, an on-campus resource for entrepreneurship training and support that has helped launch 150 companies since 2016, and UVic’s downtown hub, which was opened earlier this year to support women entrepreneurs

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