Pill Hill: Biotech drives Mississauga’s economy

“Pill Hill” may sound like a description for a pile of drugs, but it’s actually an industry term for an area in Mississauga with a heavy concentration of pharmaceutical and bio-medical companies.

Situated in the Meadowvale area, “Pill Hill” is a cluster of most of the city’s biotechnology, biomedical and other life-science companies. Multi-national names like GlaxoSmithKline, Hoffmann-La Roche, Novartis, Amgen, Beckman-Coulter and Baxter all have facilities and head offices in the area.

“Pill Hill” began building its reputation more than 20 years ago. It now represents a significant portion of the 25,000 employees and more than 400 companies in the city’s life-sciences sector, the third-largest cluster in the country after Toronto and Montreal.

Mississauga’s director of economic development Susan Amring explains that the city’s life sciences sector includes pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical equipment and services.

She said the area attracts many of the large names because the proximity to the international airport, the highway system, as well as great nearby colleges and universities to help cultivate talent.

Amring cited the University of Toronto Mississauga’s master’s degree in biotechnology as a great partnership between a post-secondary institution and the city’s biotech sector. “They recognized an opportunity to work with companies and ensure that they have talent,” she said.

Amring said the program was a clear success when UTM’s vice principal of research Ulli Krull told her about how many of the program’s graduates currently have jobs at various Mississauga biotech companies. “There’s really a good synergy that’s been developed over time,” she said.

It hasn’t always been easy. Former pharma executive Allan O’Dette faced the possible shutdown of one of Mississauga’s best known multinational drug company plants a few years ago when he was director of GlaxoSmithKline Canada.

The plant along the east side of Mississauga Blvd. was one of the British drug giant’s worst performers in its network of 90 drug making global plant network and appeared to be doomed.

“We were going to close that plant because we were at the bottom 70th of 90 plants around the world,” says O’Dette, now president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

The Canadian company came up with a new manufacturing strategy, bought out a troubled plant in Puerto Rico and invested $125 million to upgrade the Canadian operation.

“We asked ourselves what we could do better than any other plant and we came up with a plan to improve our business,” he said. “We moved from the bottom 70 to the top seven GSK plants.”

Today, the drug making operation and Canadian headquarters employs nearly 1,300 people.

For O’Dette, that experience shows Canadian companies can succeed in increasingly competitive global economy.

“We can compete globally if we learn to and focus on how to do it,” he says. “In countries like China and India, we are a rounding error as we stand right now.”

O’Dette said employees at multinationals also have a larger role. “They can train, develop and employ people in R&D, working in regulatory, the people who know how to commercialize products on a commercial and global scale,” he said.

Future of Pill Hill

Amring said she sees the area growing, both on undeveloped commercial land and through intensification. She said both Hoffman-La Roche and GlaxoSmithKline have upcoming expansion plans. “There’s capacity to continue to expand here,” she said.

Amring said her economic development team is continuing to execute a strategy that is working to build the cluster. She said the city really supports and partners with companies, even working with them a few years ago when patent protection was an issue. “We will speak loudly if we think there’s going to be an issue our future economic viability,” Amring said.

“We’ll get involved in being an advocate in some ways for continuing to see growth and investment in our city.”

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