The 2018 federal budget earmarked significant funds to advance science and research; a strong recognition that they are vital building blocks for the Canadian economy. These were welcome steps to solidifying Canada’s reputation as a home to great science and scientific research. But like farming, it is one thing to sow seeds, quite another to grow crops. For the latter, one needs to fertilize, water and tend the field. Similarly, when it comes to research and innovation, the imperative for policymakers and industry alike will be to enhance Canada’s ability to leverage these substantial investments in research to create globally competitive Canadian companies. If successful in the biotechnology space, Canada can take a leadership role developing solutions for the world and reap the economic benefits in the process.
The Canadian biotechnology sector is a great example of how research, innovation and entrepreneurship within a healthy ecosystem can produce some truly remarkable innovations and companies with enormous potential to fundamentally change how we live our lives and run our economies. The sector is made of nine hundred plus companies which are all moving brilliant ideas from the lab to the real world. The companies are located within geographic clusters which also include as partners research institutes, hospitals, clinical trials and universities. Importantly, these clusters are located in every province across the country with each one having a unique strength and/or focus.
After many long and challenging years of early-stage development, several Canadian biotech stars such as Zymeworks (Vancouver), Aquinox (Vancouver), Northern Biologics (Toronto), and Clementia (Montreal) are poised to take the next step to becoming commercial Canadian companies. New companies such as Blue Rock Therapeutics, Turnstone Biologics, Innovative Targeting Solutions, enGene and others are not far behind while industry incubators and accelerator organizations such as NeoMed, CQDM, Accel-Rx, IRiCor, CDRD are establishing the next wave of companies.
The continued collaboration, advancement of established SMEs and emergence of new companies are all very positive signs for the sector and Canada’s economy more broadly. Moreover, the federal government’s commitment to the sector through the Innovation Agenda, Supercluster Initiative, Economic Strategy Table and the federal Budget’s investment in research coupled with similar provincial programs and investments underscore the importance of the sector and will strengthen the ecosystem’s ability to identify and develop the new innovations that represent the next wave of companies. These are very encouraging developments that must be recognized and supported.
However, in the biotech space, it must be recognized that one of the critical components of a healthy biotech ecosystem is the active support and engagement of the large multi-national pharma and biotech companies as they represent very significant partners, investors and adopters for early-stage pre-commercial biotech companies and their innovations. Given the highly specialized nature of health biotech companies and their products, there is a critical connection between the biotech SMEs and the large multi-national companies. Indeed, while the growth of the aforementioned companies is very encouraging, it is important to note that all of these companies have one or more multi-national pharma as an investor and/or partner. Furthermore, the industry incubators and accelerator organizations all rely heavily on the support and partnership of the multi-national companies to drive their work in identifying and launching new Canadian companies.
Recognizing the important catalyst role the multi-national companies currently play and must continue to play in driving Canadian innovation forward, it is vital that government policy in all areas recognize the interconnectivity of all parts of the ecosystem. Public policy that is siloed and solely focused on only saving dollars will ultimately be ineffective and will undermine Canada’s competitiveness and ability to develop innovation. By contrast, holistic public policy which recognizes the interconnectivity of the ecosystem can act to establish positive hosting conditions which greatly enhance Canada’s competitiveness and ability to attract investment and commercialize innovation.
Governments in Canada and elsewhere are all being challenged by the rising costs of healthcare. There are many contributing factors to this challenge. Accordingly, there is no one panacea which will address all of the fiscal challenges and deliver improved healthcare. The truly effective solution will be found in a constructive dialogue involving all stakeholders including industry. Adopting a more holistic approach can ultimately produce sustainable solutions which will support not only greater access and affordability but can also take existing and new investments and programs and turn them into Canadian companies.
Andrew Casey is the president and CEO of BIOTECanada.