At the opening of Toronto Health Innovation Week this spring, MaRS Discovery District CEO Yung Wu had this to say about our health and life sciences ecosystem: “We have been through crawling and walking, now we are starting to run and sprint.”
Indeed, 2018 represents a crossroads for our sector. A surge of momentum for our companies, along with a provincial election, has created an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on Ontario’s life sciences economy.
You don’t need to look far to see evidence that our sector is soaring: Canadian companies – two based in Ontario – were among the Top 20 Life Sciences Companies to Watch in 2018. PwC’s MoneyTree report headlined health tech as a sector primed for growth in 2018. In March, the Government of Ontario announced a $50 million dedicated life sciences venture fund; and global pharmaceutical giant Sanofi recently invested $500 million toward a Canadian vaccine facility to be based in North York, Ontario.
On the ground, we’re pioneering innovations that are the stuff of science fiction: an Ottawa company, eSight, has developed eyewear that allows the legally blind to see. Toronto-based technology from Synaptive Medical enables doctors to perform complex brain and spinal surgeries that were previously thought impossible. The roster of Canadian companies at JP Morgan in January was nothing short of stellar.
Clearly, we are becoming trailblazers; our challenge is to seize this momentum and run with it. And, in fact, our future economic success may depend on it.
As a sector that contributes $38.5 billion to the province’s GDP and ranks among the top clusters in North America, the economic growth potential for Ontario life sciences is hefty.
In the US, three biotech companies – Amgen, Gilead, and Celgene – have a combined market capitalization of US $258B, exceeding the entire Canadian mining sector listed on the TSX (over 1,200 companies with a market cap of US $230B). Plainly put, an Ontario biotech success story has the potential to revolutionize our economy.
Life sciences is also crucial to driving sustainability in our health care system, developing technologies to control climate change, and providing knowledge-based jobs for our highly-educated workforce (more than 55% of Ontarians have a college or university degree, 25% higher than the OECD average).
So, how do we capture this massive opportunity? We need a plan. We need a coordinated life sciences strategy. This is where a newly-elected provincial government can step in to play a crucial role in securing our economic future. While the federal government is developing its own approach through its Health and Biosciences Economic Strategy Table, Ontario is still among the only major life sciences jurisdictions in North America without such a strategy in place.
It’s fitting that BIO takes place in Boston this year. Provincial politicians of all stripes should take note of the ten-year, $1BUSD Massachusetts life sciences strategy launched back in 2007 and its enormous impact on this world-leading biotech cluster. The state has committed to renewing this funding for another five years.
With the importance of such a strategy in mind, Life Sciences Ontario released its Blueprint document in December 2017. It lays out a comprehensive plan and recommendations to accelerate the success of life sciences, with specific action around access to capital, talent growth, support for innovation, and promotion of our sector. It is endorsed by leading provincial and national life sciences, health, and economic organizations. All that is needed now is for the next Ontario government to run with it.
The provincial election will be decided on June 7th – the final day of BIO 2018. Regardless of the outcome, life sciences is non-partisan by its very nature and must remain a priority. It touches on almost every facet of our success as a province and nation: the food we eat, the health of our population and environment, our research and innovation capacity, and the jobs and wealth that fuel our economic growth. These issues transcend politics.
We are starting to run and sprint in our Ontario life sciences sector, but this is only one leg of a long race. To make the leap to our full potential, we must all work together toward a coordinated strategy. This is the springboard that will propel our outstanding innovations into the global marketplace and create a healthier and wealthier future for all Canadians.
Dr. Jason Field is President and CEO of Life Sciences Ontario, a member-funded, not-for-profit organization advancing Ontario life sciences through advocacy and policy work, educational and networking events, and support services for the sector.
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