Tips from trade commissioners: Life sciences trends and how the TCS can help

As a member of Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), Lily‑Arlette Toussaint Sánchez represents exporters in the highly technical field of digital health. She sees the human stories behind the cutting‑edge technology, from the entrepreneurs introducing their products in new markets to the end users themselves.

Lily-Arlette Toussaint Sanchez
Lily‑Arlette Toussaint Sánchez, trade commissioner on the life‑sciences team in the Ontario regional office of the TCS

Toussaint Sánchez especially appreciates how her work as a trade commissioner on the life‑sciences team in the Ontario regional office of the TCS helps digital‑health businesses develop international strategies.

“When Canadian companies succeed, the Canada brand succeeds, as does our economy, and that's really what the TCS is about,” she says.

With parents who were both immigrants to Canada, her mother coming from Mexico and her father from Haiti, Toussaint Sánchez was born in Gatineau, Quebec, and grew up mostly in Kingston, Ontario. She is fluently trilingual in French, Spanish and English and joined the TCS nine years ago with a background in sociology and anthropology, which “drives my passion when working with clients,” she says. “I like understanding how society and trends shape business behavior, lead to innovation and influence global commerce.”

Life sciences industry trends

Life sciences are a priority sector for Canada, with hubs across the country in fields such as pharmaceuticals and medical technologies. Digital health especially has a strong presence given Canada’s vast distances, for example connecting remote health‑care practitioners in the north. It includes software used for patient management and medical imaging, telehealth, health analytics, mobile health and wearable devices.

Toussaint Sánchez says that through these technologies, the direct relationship that health companies traditionally had with hospitals and clinics now extends to patients themselves, something entrepreneurs must incorporate into their business strategies.

“For example, a mobility software or app that can track physical progress can be used by a physiotherapist in a clinical setting or by patients in the privacy of their homes,” she explains. The COVID‑19 pandemic has also “propelled” developments in the field and added pressure to commercialize technologies that allow for virtual medicine.

3 things digital‑health exporters need to know

Lily‑Arlette Toussaint Sánchez’s tips for Canadian companies looking to sell their digital‑health solutions in international markets:

  1. Take the time to do research. Identify your competitive advantage and your competitors. Many companies love their idea, but it already exists. What product or technology are you trying to disrupt?
  2. Be innovative, be quick and protect yourself. The industry is growing quickly, and if you aren’t innovative, many disruptors will get in your way and your technology may be obsolete. Look into protecting your intellectual property in more than one jurisdiction.
  3. Understand how artificial intelligence and machine learning work. See if they could or should be incorporated into your technology, product or service. If so, add a strategy to your business plan.

TCS support for Canadian businesses

Canadian life‑sciences companies face obstacles in areas such as business development and attracting financing, she says. There are TCS programs to help, such as CanExport funding and the Canadian Technology Accelerators. “For many companies, it can be a little daunting because they are overwhelmed with so many resources out there,” says Toussaint Sánchez. She suggests checking out the TCS website and additional programs and services by downloading the Canada Business App.

“Companies are looking for support, business opportunities, guidance and the reassurance that Canada wants them to succeed,” she says.

Trade commissioners work to understand a company’s history, business and goals. “We assess its export‑readiness, scalability, and countries where it has had success,” Toussaint Sánchez says. She points out that it is important for companies to have international business plans, to learn to pitch their products and to know their competition.

“If you don’t have a plan, you can’t expect someone to follow you on your journey,” she remarks. “If you can’t explain what you offer, you can’t expect people to want it. And if you don’t know your competition, well, you may be losing sales to them.”

An international business plan should cover elements such as a company’s financial and human resources, expansion strategy, foreign‑market research, risk assessments and marketing plan, she says.

Trade commissioners at the regional office can assist, and they often collaborate, says Toussaint Sánchez. “A company that I am working with in digital health may also be working with my colleague in automotive, because some of its technology is transferable.”

She notes that the diverse TCS network of more than 1,000 business‑savvy experts in 160 cities worldwide, both Canadians and locally engaged staff, offer “a wealth of experience and perspectives” to help Canada’s businesses trade, grow and succeed. “We work as a team to cover much ground and support Canadian companies.”

As well as dealing with clients ready to do business abroad, trade commissioners at regional offices help diversity‑owned businesses get started. Toussaint Sánchez is the champion for women entrepreneurs, while colleagues assist youth, Indigenous, LGBTQ2+ and Black entrepreneurs. They provide advice, introductions and encourage these businesses to leverage available programs and initiatives.

Bridging the gaps

“We try to bridge the gaps,” says Toussaint Sánchez, who feels that her background and the fact that she is a visible‑minority woman give her a “level of relatability” with the companies she helps. “I understand what drives them and what their challenges are.”

The COVID‑19 pandemic has brought extra challenges, for example the conferences and trade shows that are such a part of global business development are being held virtually. This brings advantages, for instance reducing the cost of attendance and making them more accessible, however they lack valuable in‑person interactions.

As for trade commissioners in the era of COVID‑19, “we do have to be a little more proactive, given that before we would meet many companies at events, which were more conducive to conversations and meet‑and‑greets,” Toussaint Sánchez allows. “The dynamics have changed, but we are all adapting and evolving at the same time.”

While the global health crisis has hit some businesses hard, if there can be a “silver lining” to the pandemic, she says, “it has given us time to reflect and forecast where we want to be when we come out of this.” For many that planning started with just a couple of months, she adds. “Now we realize we may need to forecast for a year or two—in life and in business.”

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