Consulates can help
Federal and provincial foreign missions can provide valuable export assistance

New York - At first glance there was nothing unusual about the biotechnology investor conference held at the Rockefeller Center in mid-town Manhattan last week. The meeting included the usual assortment of entrepreneurs with dreams, venture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies looking for that next big licensing deal.

An informed observer would have been surprised at the number of Canadian participants, particularly in light of the fact that the conference focused on the highly specialized area of central nervous system research, which holds promise for treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's.

But the number of Canadian participants was no accident. In fact, the entire event was staged by the Canadian Consulate General in New York, to provide visibility and networking opportunities for companies trying to attract U.S. investment or gain export contracts.

"We invited a variety of companies so it did not look like just a Canadian event," said Allison Trenholm, a business development officer at the consulate who specializes in biotech. "But giving Canadian researchers a chance to discuss their work with U.S. counterparts in public gives them added credibility in the investment community."

Quebec trade flows, like those in the rest of Canada, are increasingly taking on a North-South as opposed to East-West bent. According to the Ministère de L'Industrie et du Commerce du Québec, trade between Quebec and the rest of Canada rose 28.8 per cent to $44.3 billion between 1995 and 2001.

But trade between Quebec and the rest of the world, rose much a faster 43.2 per cent, to $84.8 billion. Like Canadian trade, the lion's share of Quebec's international exports (about 85 per cent), end up in the U.S.

One of the reasons cross-border business is such an important part of our economy, is that companies who want to expand into the U.S. can just pick up the phone and call potential investors and trading partners, unlike more distant countries where there can be prohibitive language and cultural barriers.

But both the federal and provincial governments have numerous trade representatives in the U.S., who can often provide invaluable assistance to businesses that want to broaden their market access.

These initiatives can range from supplying market research, identifying key contacts, and providing preliminary assessments about whether Canadian businesses are ready to export. Much of the assistance, particularly networking opportunities such as the biotech conference are low-key, but the benefits can be tangible.

"I made some good contacts," said Lisa McKerracher, a conference participant and one of the country's top researchers in the field of neuronal regeneration in the central nervous system. McKerracher is also chief scientific officer at BioAxone Therapeutic, a company she co-founded.

"We got additional visibility with the U.S. investment community, as well as a good lead, that may help us in our search for a CEO," McKerracher said.

McKerracher, whose conference trip was sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, used her panelist position to hammer home the key role of government policy in biotech development. "The private sector cannot do it all on its own," said McKerracher. "All the countries that have strong biotech sectors, -- including the U.S., --have governments that recognize its importance."

We typically hear about government assistance when huge export deals are announced such as Bombardier selling rail cars for the New York subway system. But according to Canadian consulate officials, the vast majority of those who seek export help are small and medium sized businesses.

One example is Philippe David, managing partner of the New York office of Fasten Martineau, a Canadian law firm. But David cautions the process can take time.

"We have been attending consulate events for several years," David said. "But recently we got a referral from the embassy that led to a mandate for our Canadian offices, from a U.S. firm that wanted to expand into Canada."

Like the Canadian consulate, the Quebec government also has a presence in Manhattan.

Ironically Quebec's trade offices are on the 26th floor of the Rockefeller Center, while the federal government is on the basement, first and second floors.

But Jean Saintonge, head of the economic section at Quebec Government House would not comment on the province's symbolic victory in the elbowing that sometimes characterizes the two governments' visibility efforts on the international stage.

"We have been here for 60 years, helping to promote Quebec," Saintonge said. "It's an excellent venue to promote our food, tourism and other industries."

Saintonge sees the Quebec delegation's primary roles as being to inform companies about markets, working with individual companies with specific needs, and organizing promotional events.

But while the consulate networks can help companies, they are not panaceas said Brian Schumacher, deputy consul general at the Canadian delegation. "New York is a very competitive market. The best in the world in every field come here." Schumacher said. "Companies had better make sure they have a strong domestic base before trying to branch out. Because it's easy to get burned."

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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