Halifax Biomedical Inc.
One Graduate’s Quest for a Nova Scotia Job
Envision Oberdorf, Switzerland - a small pastoral village tucked into the steep valleys of the Jura Mountains near Basel and the southern Black Forest. Now picture Mabou, Nova Scotia - a tiny township rimmed by the low rolling Creignish Hills and seated at the head of an inlet to the Northumberland Strait.
What ties these two idyllic settings together besides spectacular landscapes? The answer is highly specialized biotechnology centres - and New Glasgow native Chad Munro, who was “really motivated to get back to Nova Scotia.”
Flash back to the early 1990s. Munro was in his fourth year of an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Technical University of Nova Scotia (TUNS), now part of Dalhousie University. He was also laying paving bricks, on a dead-end search for a Canadian company that could utilize his biomedical specialty.
It’s common knowledge that many qualified graduates leave Nova Scotia every year in hopes of getting the kind of real world experience that could bring them back to their much-loved province.
But few take the circuitous path Munro did, leading him back not just to a Nova Scotia career - but to the helm of his own highly-specialized international biotech company headquartered in Mabou, western Cape Breton.
Munro’s interest was in orthopedics, focusing on methods to test and improve joint replacement devices. Angling for the best chance to get back to Nova Scotia, Munro accepted a position with one of the world’s leading orthopedic suppliers, Synthes.
The high-tech company was located in a remote, rural area of Switzerland. “[Oberdorf] is not Zurich,” Munro laughingly explains. The job also required him to become certified bilingual - in German.
Synthes proved to be life changing. Munro was impressed that the highly successful company also fostered a positive work environment and focused on improving patients’ lives. It was the career scenario he had been seeking.
But Nova Scotia kept calling.
So Munro dedicated himself to learning all aspects of the business in order to improve his chances of getting a coveted Nova Scotia job. He learned specific production techniques, product development philosophy, and how to secure patents worldwide; he worked in the sales and regulatory departments; and he engineered new products.
“I was just trying to get as much experience as I could because I was afraid when I went back I wouldn’t be able to get a job,” he remembers.
Three years later, Munro took a leave of absence from Synthes and moved back to Nova Scotia with wife Shauna Barrington, a cytologist (cancer cell biologist) whom he’d met at St. Francis University. They returned to Dalhousie to earn graduate degrees.
Munro never went back to Oberdorf, despite several attractive standing offers upon his return. He didn’t have to.
His Master’s thesis focused on a unique imaging technique utilizing stereo X-rays to create exact 3-D measurements of newly implanted joint replacements - Roentgen Stereophotogrammetric Analysis or RSA. It allows surgeons to track the movement of these devices in order to perfect them.
It’s a process Munro’s own company now uses and provides as a service to clients.
Halifax surgeons began requesting his RSA expertise on their own projects, and suddenly Munro found himself as a full time consultant with more work than he could handle. That’s when he knew he was here to stay. Halifax Biomedical Inc. was born.
“I think the end goal was always to try to find a way to exist in Nova Scotia,” Munro says, “I realized I didn’t have to wait another 10 years to do so.”
Today, Halifax Biomedical specializes in contract research, conducting clinical trials and providing surgeons with the specialized tools they need to monitor patient progress.
The company exports services worldwide through partnerships in Europe and Australia, and directly to surgeons and healthcare providers across Canada and the US - working with such centres as the prestigious Mayo Clinic, Rush University and Mass General Hospital (part of Harvard University).
But how does Cape Breton factor in? The Swiss influence. “They didn’t shy away from putting leading companies in the backwoods of the Jura,” Munro says, referring to the bucolic Swiss province after which the Jurassic period is named. “It’s common to place knowledge-based high-tech think tank companies in a rural setting.”
Scientists in healthcare want to stay healthy. They need to work in an environment that’s conducive to research and scientific progress - which brings to mind Alexander Graham Bell, who fell in love with Cape Breton for similar reasons. Bell perfected many of his inventions in Baddeck, which, coincidentally, was first on Munro’s list of locations.
But it was Munro’s wife, now an environmental management consultant, who convinced the entrepreneur to look at Mabou. He fell instantly in love. According to Munro, his associates feel the same. “People who come here and work in the Mabou office absolutely love it,” he affirms. Halifax Biotech now employs 10 people and counting.
“It’s a wonderful fit to be in one of the most beautiful spots in Nova Scotia,” says the young CEO, who 10 years earlier was laying bricks and looking for a job that would keep him in the province. His biggest goal has been realized - a life in Nova Scotia.