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B.C. biotech and life sciences sector cements itself as powerhouse industry

Surrey-incubated company MetaOptima is leading the way as new companies emerge in market
Maryam Sadeghi’s company, MetaOptima, showcases the rise of B.C.’s biotech industry. The firm developed MoleScope, a smartphone device that can help track potentially cancerous moles | Chung Chow

In 2013, a report from research firm MarketsandMarkets pegged the B.C. biotechnology and life sciences industry as an emerging sector. Growth of the cancer-profiling market over the next five years was estimated at 133%, and LifeSciences BC president and chief executive officer Paul Drohan stated in the association’s own report that the industry was supporting around 14,000 jobs and contributing more than $1 billion to the provincial GDP.

Only two years later, what was once a budding sector is now looking like an established powerhouse. 

“This past year has been extraordinary for our life science community in B.C.,” Drohan said. “Our academic institutions continue to turn out innovation. Our health institutions and governments, both nationally and provincially, continue to provide support and funding to early-stage life science companies to pursue commercialization of their innovation.”

Drohan said B.C.-based small and medium-sized enterprises in the biotechnology and life sciences sector have raised around $400 million through fundraising that includes five IPOs in the past 12 months, four of them listed on Nasdaq and one on the TSX Venture Exchange. 

A perfect example of the companies now starting to emerge from B.C.’s established biotechnology and life sciences industry is MetaOptima, which has developed and is marketing the MoleScope, a small device that attaches to a smartphone which can help patients and physicians track potentially cancerous moles. While it is not a diagnostic or therapeutic device, it provides a high-resolution view of the skin through magnification and specialized lighting. The images can then be sent to a dermatologist, essentially eliminating the eight to 12 months of average wait time for a specialist visit. 

“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and a lot of it goes unchecked or unnoticed,” said MetaOptima co-founder Maryam Sadeghi, a 2012 PhD graduate from Simon Fraser University (SFU), who immigrated to Canada from Iran for her schooling. “Working with skin cancer specialists and patients through my research at the BC Cancer Agency and [University of British Columbia dermatology department], I thought, ‘Why do people have to wait to see a dermatologist regularly for checkups? There should be a better solution.’”

Sadeghi said MoleScope, which was first developed at SFU Surrey and has two offices in downtown Vancouver and one on the premises of the Health Tech Innovation Foundation in Surrey, has garnered a lot of attention because it can facilitate remote checkups for people in areas that might not normally have access to a dermatologist, especially in developing countries where medical treatment can be sporadic.

“We’re definitely getting a lot of international interest, and right now we’re doing 13 language translations for the application,” she said.

Since Sadeghi and MetaOptima won the New Ventures BC Competition and the Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize, her business has taken off. Earlier this year MetaOptima was selected for the Plug and Play Tech Center’s Internet of Things startup accelerator program in Sunnyvale, California, and MoleScope was featured at the World Congress of Dermatology in Vancouver. Sadeghi is also the science and technology adviser for the Digital Health Hub, a Surrey-based program that has partnered with Fraser Health and the City of Surrey to help researchers “build successful digital health solutions for real-world applications.”

“This is definitely an entrepreneur’s dream,” Sadeghi said. “But it’s a lot of work to catch up with the hundreds of requests and interest that you receive in just a few days after you launch. But it’s fun; I wouldn’t ask for anything else other than this opportunity.”