Lightning strike

September 3, 1999

A magnetic resonance research centre is energising the economy

of a bruised Manitoban city and bringing it to international notice A world-class research centre for magnetic resonance imaging has grown out of the unlikely Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg.

Before the Institute for Biodiagnostics moved in 1990 to Manitoba from more research-intensive Ottawa, there was not a single magnetic resonance imaging machine for the entire province of just over one million people. Now, thanks to the institute, which mostly focuses on creating medical applications for MRI, Manitobans have three of the sought-

after machines.

The underlying success story of this tale is not about simply giving patients better access to three-dimensional diagnosis or the sophisticated biochemical analysis of the spectroscope, another non-invasive device on which the IBD focuses its attention. It is the fact that a commercially savvy government-funded R&D centre and its dynamic leader successfully moved to a bruised mid-sized city, known mostly for its closed factories and surrounding expanses of farmland.

The IBD came to town and developed what seems to be a whole new research culture. It centres on IBD's ability to find new uses for MRI and to emit its own magnetic resonance. That pull has brought in important private and government investment, creating jobs and taking the MRI field further.

People closely connected to the centre all mention Ian Smith as a key influence. A prodigal son of Winnipeg, the IBD director-general seemed to have easily convinced ten eastern Canadians to follow him back home. Seven years later, the place holds 150 researchers, has spun off five companies, and generates three dollars for every dollar it spends.

"Ian's place created a new climate," says the University of Manitoba's Gary Glavin, whose university's medical school has "an intimate relationship" with the IBD. The institute has pushed its scientists to apply for cross appointments at the university. Even though the posts are unpaid, the title of adjunct professor gives them more federal funding options and access to the university's students and fellows. "The place is hopping with UoM graduate students."

There is more to this symbiosis than students and federal grants. The IBD is one of 16 National Research Centre institutes, all with an unabashedly commercial bent. The Winnipeg facility digs for gold beyond its mandate of developing early-warning medical devices and software. It has sold its pattern-recognition technology to a local tornado forecaster and it provides valuable data to a German biochemical firm.

Dr Glavin, associate vice-president of research at Manitoba and a member of some of the same boards as the IBD's head, jokes that Dr Smith is "a shameless promoter". But he too finds himself boasting of the successful commercial ventures coming from his university.

His technology transfer office has doubled its revenue in the past five years, and - unlike the academics, some of whom are trying to fight runaway commercial incursion - he calls commercialisation "the fourth pillar" on which the university must stand, coming after teaching, research and community service. A national Expert Panel on the Commercialisation of University Research has just produced a report that should increase interest.

Dr Smith waxes enthusiastically about the changing nature of university-level research. He believes that research must respond to society's economic needs:

"We have environmental toxicologists driving taxis while IBM is screaming for PhDs." Dr Smith characterises the research of Canada's past as undirected, with scientists having spent too much time on things unconnected to the immediate needs of Canadians "like malaria and ingrown toenails".

He suggests that the university's place in society gives it the power to legitimise industrial research. "It's hard to be a good researcher and not have a connection to the university."

Dr Smith seems delighted with the IBD's lightning-rod status. "In our first couple of years, everyone wanted to work with us," he says, describing how he would receive dozens of proposals from local researchers.

He also received a lot of help from the city - which, with its population of 680,000, seemed just the right size to get things done. "I would talk to one person and he would say: 'I'll give you the number of the head of the hospital.' After talking to him, I would get the number for the vice-president of the Royal Bank," Dr Smith says.

Soon he had a board of advisers that was a who's who of Winnipeg and helped him eventually to get the ear of the provincial premier.

Last year IBD made the news with its image-guided surgery. Its more portable MRI allows real-time images during surgery so a surgeon does not have to rely on a pre-operative MRI.

The IBD has made other significant discoveries, too: software that recognises chemical patterns and provides effective arthritis diagnosis, and the ability to perform real-time monitoring of the biochemical effects of drug therapies on the brain.

Dr Smith is happy about bringing these things to Winnipeg. He is also happy that his late mother would not have to make excuses for him, embarrassingly admitting to friends that he is in Cambridge earning a PhD or working in Ottawa - another of the city's lost researchers.

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