Personally, I believe that it is an exciting time to be in the biotechnology and life sciences industry. Truly, our understanding of human biology, disease mechanisms, viral interactions, and treatment methods has never been greater.
Through a constant focus on innovation and excellence, we are becoming better armed to translate scientific discoveries into new healthcare solutions: enabling patients to live longer, while also increasing quality of life. While many of these scientific advancements may not be directly visible to the greater population, laboratories, institutions and scientific communities are constantly giving birth to the next wave of technological and medical progress.
Innovation is the lifeblood of the life sciences industry. This realm is based on the application of incredible discoveries that we are making every day, to treat our most aggressive and deadly illnesses and conditions in ways that had once been deemed impossible. Institutions such as the University of California: San Francisco, the J. Craig Venter Institute, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Stanford University are only a small selection of the trendsetters currently helping to make our lives better. We live in a time of major scientific advancements that are happening on a daily basis. Innovative thinking surrounding the application of these developments and the commercial development and international distribution of treatment methods are both challenges that define innovation itself.
In many ways, California is helping to lead and shape the life sciences industry. California is perhaps the most innovative state in the country – perhaps, in the world. The local economy itself is based on innovation: heavily invested in information technology, aerospace engineering, and the life sciences. Scientists, doctors, academics, entrepreneurs, investors and risk takers all gravitate towards California, because of its inspiring and surprising community: a community that breeds ideas and spawns action. By creating and supporting world-class academic institutions and research facilities here, our industry has been able to thrive. This knowledge center creates an abundance of scientific and medical discoveries every year and seems to be steadily increasing.
Being originally from Vancouver, I can really see the potential Canada has in harnessing this same innovative mantra. The discovery of insulin, t-cell receptors, site-based mutagenesis, the characterization of free radicals, and the mapping of the visual cortex of the brain were all accomplished by Canadians. However, our once healthy biotech and life sciences industry in British Columbia has all but vanished. While some companies were simply sold off and exported, others were left to wither away and become obsolete. There are many factors here that can be seen as influencing this decline in Canadian medical and biological advancements:
There needs to be additional emphasis on integrating and having academic institutions to bridge the research and development pipeline. Leading academic institutions fostering partnership with industry can lead to an ever-growing synergy of discovery and commercialization. Investment is another critical factor: not only equity investment but a significant investment in the community, including giving to service and school systems – what I call Academic Equity – in order to provide an incentive and return for the academic institutions. These types of initiatives would continue to foster and grow an educated workforce that will feed and support the high tech jobs Canada has. Supporting the academic bridge may lead to an incubation program, as pharmaceutical companies continue to look for new ways to source early-stage innovation.
There needs to be an understanding and consensus that the life sciences industry is a high-risk industry with a long cycle. To create a new therapeutic option, many companies will have invested $1B and 10-15 years. There needs to be the understanding at the government level that these companies are bringing revenue and value in a different fashion. The government can play a role that provides safety or cushion, such as providing small business incentives that can be very helpful, as many healthcare companies are very sensitive to, and can be helped by, supportive policy changes. Almost every small company has or is in the process of needing grant funding. Many Canadian companies even consider applying for grants south of the border. This is a critical bridge to translating academic research into companies that can attract VC funding. In the US, NIH funds innovation. In Canada, that is the NRC and its several branches. The funding from these organizations is a government investment and, the more there is available, the more research opportunities it creates. This must continue, if we want to improve the lives of patients and the health of the nation.
Private Sector Role
Policies, government funding, safety nets, and grants provide confidence to the private sector, not to mention more jobs and a more robust industry to invest. This is a part of the natural cycle of innovation. These activities will serve as an important anchor for the attraction of interactions with VCs and investors for initiating start-up biotechs and potential funding.
As noted, Canadians have played a key role in the discovery, innovation and commercialization of biotech. However, what was once an extremely successful industry will need to focus on the potential solutions above, in order to reinvigorate the industry. As a proud Canadian, I would like to see both public and private sectors working together, to once again make life sciences and innovation a cornerstone of the Canadian economy.