This past year, Ontario created a brand-new position to provide a platform to support the growth of its innovation-based economy and promote Ontario as an integral research hub and a top destination for global talent. Molly Shoichet was appointed and is now the first ever Chief Scientist of Ontario.
Molly is an award-winning researcher and will be the glue that converges the government, the scientific community and public, by championing high quality science and promoting Ontario to the world’s best researchers.
Biotechnology Focus had the opportunity to speak with her recently about her new position and what we can expect to see come from it.
What was the vision that created this position?
I think that the chief innovation officer in Israel was a big inspiration for this position as he is doing great things around innovation and the economy, rooted in science. That was the spark that led to a greater discussion and to a survey of what is going on in the rest of the world regarding chief scientists. By seeing what was going on in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, US, even in Canada – because we have had a chief scientist in Quebec for the last six years – helped shape what would be great for Ontario.
Was this position based off templates from around the world?
You always want to see what’s going on globally, look at best practices and make it right for Ontario. I think we realise that, in Israel, there’s more of a chief innovation officer rather than a chief scientist, and that wasn’t quite what the need was in Ontario. Really this role is an advisory role, similar to the federal Chief Science Advisor, rather than an operational one, such as the Chief Scientist position in Quebec, which includes a significant operational component. Of course, it’s always a good idea to see what everyone else is doing, learn from that and then ask ‘what do we think is right for Ontario’.
What would you like to achieve at this year’s BIO conference in Boston?
We are passionate about Ontario’s Culture of Science and we’d like to share that message while we’re here at BIO. We start in a position of strength, with a fantastic ecosystem that begins with superb education and great science centres, like the Ontario Science Centre and Science North. We have internationally renowned universities, with 7 of the top 15 universities in Canada being in Ontario and the University of Toronto being ranked among the top 20 universities internationally for the past decade. We have strength in life sciences, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing. We have a dynamic private sector that gets stronger every year. With increased opportunities for investment, our start-ups are scaling up. We will build on these strengths to enhance Ontario’s culture of science and the knowledge-based economy.
What attracted you to the role of Chief Scientist?
Well, I think this is always a good question because I have an amazing job being a professor, discovery is so exciting, and we always think about the opportunity to invent the future. So, I am really happy that I have been able to hold onto that, and coming into this role it was really important for the chief scientist to be a scientist. But what was really exciting to me about this role, was taking everything I have learned about bringing teams together and communicating that to society. To do that for the province of Ontario was that the opportunity to do something bigger and also the opportunity to give back to the community in a different way. What really excited me was the challenge.
I have to tell you, I’ve only been here since January, so since then I have been on this enormous learning curve and I’ve gone out and met with as many people as I can. I have a much better understanding of the role of the government. Everyone has been very welcoming and they share that excitement that I have to work together in trying to do something better and in doing something differently.
We would like to have an open door policy and see ourselves as being the champion for research and a champion for bringing the community together around the knowledge-based economy.
I see you have a background in regenerative medicine. What interested you in this form of research? What would you say your area of expertise would be?
I think when any of us look back on our career, any of us can connect the dots, but at the time they’re just dots. For me growing up I was always interested in medicine, and when I got to university I had a better understanding of what research is, and even when I graduated with my undergraduate degree I had applied to med school and grad school. Actually, I deferred med school and went right to grad school and just got really excited about the idea of “inventing the future” – future of medicine, future therapeutics.
My first job out of university was at a biotech company and I think I was just lucky. That company was doing cell therapy – this was before we called it regenerative medicine. My Ph.D. was actually in polymer chemistry, so it was in more of the engineering and materials side of things, but the company needed the materials to protect the cells from the immune system. I think I was just very lucky to have joined a biotech company in the greater Boston area. It was a field that was emerging and I found myself in the field of regenerative medicine and was smart enough to stay in it. When I came to Toronto, there were already a couple of people in engineering working in this field – of course, there’s a huge richness in stem cell biology in Toronto since the 1960’s. This has just been a great area, and we’re working in areas where there are no, or few, therapeutics available – we’re trying to overcome stroke, spinal cord injury, and blindness. With regenerative medicine, there’s that hope of not just treating the symptoms of disease, but stopping them and reversing them. Giving someone back their vision or their cognitive abilities, in itself is very inspiring.
Our lab is highly collaborative, highly multidisciplinary. We’re working on strategies to enhance cell survival and enhance integration. So that’s our area, really that connectivity. All of our inventions go back to my core expertise, which is designing materials for applications in medicine.
What do you envision happening in the life sciences community as we move forward?
I think we have great expertise in the life sciences – over the last 15 years more than 50 per cent of Ontario’s research investments have been in life sciences – so we can recognise that as our strength and our opportunity. We see great expertise in genomics and synthetic biology. Great expertise in regenerative medicine and cell therapy. There are overlaps obviously, and great expertise in artificial intelligence. In that, Ontario just has a strong history in cell therapy, artificial intelligence, and big data. So, we’re building from a strength, and we’re building from decades of investment in research to now being able to start connecting those dots in research and the knowledge-based economy. As most of us know, it is not a straight line. As a society, investment in research is crucial, as it leads to invention, innovation, and commercialization. We need to continue investing but we also have to invest more. I think of it as a spiral, reaching for bigger, better, smarter, and more efficient strategies and knowledge. So, it’s that idea that we’re really excited about – convergence.
What are your aspirations for Ontario/Canada?
It’s not about me, but about all of us coming together. Even our team here in the chief scientist’s office is a small team, but with enormous goals, that we can only achieve if we all come together. People aren’t going to come together unless they’re inspired by a common purpose. That’s why I say it’s not about me, or even the team here, it’s about bringing the community together.
Could you tell me a bit about Ontario’s Life Sciences Economy?
Ontario is an economic powerhouse in Canada. It invests the most in life sciences out of all the provinces and his home to 51 per cent of Canada’s life sciences R&D. Ontario’s economy in the life sciences sector in North America is also remarkably strong. Ontario places 7th in terms of employment and 8th by the number of firms in North America, so we need to wave our Ontario flag proudly. It’s important for global business leaders to know that Ontario is the 7th largest economy in North America.
To sustain the levels of innovation in the life sciences sector, you need a strong ecosystem made up of a number of different partners, including hospitals, research centres, technology incubators, universities and much more. The key for successfully growing Ontario’s life sciences ecosystem can be linked to the incredible amounts of collaboration that has grown organically between all the different partners. This unique and enhanced level of collaboration has positioned Ontario as a global centre of research excellence in cancer and stem cell research; diagnostic imaging; gene therapy and neuroscience.
With over 1900 firms, 60,000 employees and 18,000 researchers and staff making up Ontario’s life science sector, the one defining asset that has made this sector a world leader is the strength and diversity of our science-based communities and networks. Science and research provide the sector with a level of adaptability that ensures their strategic investments continuously innovate and commercialize those successes.