Listen to the extended interview:
- Canada must invest adequately in the commercialization and talent development for the biotech sector or we may lose our best and brightest to other countries.
- The right policies for data collection, the commercialization of new drugs and taxes will help make Canada’s hosting conditions ideal for biotech companies.
- Canada needs more entrepreneurs in the biotech sector to not only innovate but also inspire and train the next generation of talent.
Canada’s biotech sector needs anchor companies to establish themselves in Canada, become globally competitive and attract more investment, talent and ideas. These anchor companies will build upon an already strong foundation if they get the right support from the government and the wider sector.
How would you describe the economic and social importance of the biotechnology sector for Canada?
It is important to look at biotechnology and the sector not just through a Canadian lens but through a global lens. When you think about what is happening in the world, we have a planet with a population that is expected to grow to nine billion or 10 billion over the next decade or two, and that brings with it enormous challenges.
“We have to figure out new ways to lessen our impact on the planet and using biotechnology is one of the ways we can do that.”
We are already dealing with a changed environment and climate. The environment and climate will continue to change and adding more people is just going to accelerate the pace of that. We have to figure out new ways to lessen our impact on the planet and using biotechnology is one of the ways we can do that. That is the type of technology and innovation that allows us to grow differently, manufacture differently and heal our lives. It will not only lessen our impact on the planet but allows us to be more efficient as a species.
At the end of the day, the planet is ultimately not threatened, but our species itself will be. Human beings are going to be threatened so unless we do something to address where our trajectory is going, we are going to have some fairly significant problems.
This is not only Canada’s opportunity. Other countries recognize the economic and social opportunity of biotech and are supporting their local or domestic sectors. Canada has a fantastic foundation upon which to build. We have a great reputation for science and innovation and if we can take that and accelerate it, we are going to be at the forefront of developing some of the solutions that are needed for the global challenge of population growth.
How would you describe the current state of biotech innovation in Canada? What are we doing well and what challenges do we face?
The current state is really strong. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was doing quite well. There were a lot of great companies emerging across the country. Canada has strong biotech clusters in every single province. We are developing support networks and environments to allow those companies to develop and grow. Quite a few companies across the country have been growing in a very rapid fashion, attracting a lot of investment and more talent. That is very encouraging.
We have a globally recognized expertise in doing good science and research through clinical trials, which we are notably good at. We should also look at what is coming out of our university systems and especially the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs that we have invested in. We are getting some very smart students coming out of these programs and they are developing great science and research. This is another key strength.
Here is some history in the vaccine world: Canada has a couple of big companies that are doing vaccine work, such as Sanofi Pasteur in the Toronto area and Medicago in Quebec City. We have some good biomanufacturing companies such as BioVectra in Prince Edward Island and Resilience in Toronto. The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) is doing great work in Saskatchewan. We have a lot of these types of companies as well as some great research centres such as the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine out of Toronto, which deals in regenerative medicine, cell therapy and gene therapies. There is also adMare BioInnovations, a national network that pools together expertise in identifying and developing drugs and develops our talent pool along the Canadian Alliance for Skills and Training in Life Sciences (CASTL).
There are some fundamental pieces for the biotech sector already in place and the future looks good just from that alone. But there are some gaps. The government quite appropriately recognizes that Canada could do a better job with biomanufacturing and we are building that up through the National Research Council and other investments. That is going to be important going forward. But for the most part, we have a strong foundation to build on.
“Canada’s biotech sector needs anchor companies to establish themselves in Canada, become globally competitive and attract more investment, talent and ideas.”
Where we have not really succeeded is in creating anchor companies. Those types of companies have a stickiness and stay here to grow and create more jobs. Thinking back to the early days of technology and information technology, we had anchor companies in that sector such as Research In Motion or BlackBerry down in Kitchener-Waterloo. Canada’s biotech sector needs anchor companies to establish themselves in Canada, become globally competitive and attract more investment, talent and ideas. Anchor companies also have the potential to create more companies.
Getting those anchor companies is our next step forward. If we get the anchor companies we need, then we will have truly created something special that built upon the foundation that was already in place for some time.
What policy approach must Canada take to spur biotech innovation and become a global leader in biotech and biomanufacturing?
One of the key determining factors that will allow us to get and grow the anchor companies we need is our hosting conditions. Canada’s hosting conditions – its tax policy and regulatory policy – are tools at the government’s disposal for the growth of the biotech sector. The government controls what our hosting conditions will be like and so they play an essential role in setting the conditions for the growth of the industry. Some of this is on the industry itself, so we have to do a good job of developing the right science and getting investments. But when it comes to tax policy, which is what allows companies to grow and commercialize here, the government needs to look at that and be as effective and efficient as possible.
The government will play an important role in supporting the development of the talent pool as well. They can do this with good immigration policy and by investing in our universities and training institutes. On top of that, Canada’s regulatory policy framework must include a clear pathway for the drugs that are being developed for rare diseases. We need mechanisms for the pricing of these drugs, the use of real-world evidence and the better use and development of data. These are all important features in addition to speeding up the actual approval process. We saw how quickly Health Canada was able to take a relatively new technology to them – the mRNA vaccines – conduct thorough examinations for safety and efficacy and quickly approve those vaccines for Canadians. That type of expertise is going to be needed in other areas as new technologies come forward.
The last piece we need to work with the government on, which is a government-led initiative, is the development of the dataset. The biotech sector has no idea where we are. We are making assumptions based on anecdotes. We are measuring what the industry is about now based on what we hear from different companies. The government used to measure these things through Statistics Canada and we need something like that again. The government must invest in the collection and analysis of data so the biotech sector can know where we are and when we got there. How else will we know when we have reached the finish line? We need to be able to put data in place to actually measure that.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity to talk about how important and valuable the biotech sector is.”
I wish we never went through the COVID-19 pandemic and I never want to go through it again. That being said, having been in this sector through the pandemic, I have realized that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity to talk about how important and valuable the biotech sector is, whether it is because of vaccines, therapeutics and even other spaces.
The Canadian government has figured out that we never want to be in a position again where we have to use duct tape and wire to put a solution together. They are already planning for COVID-40 or COVID-50. They are creating a strong base where they are investing in biomanufacturing, growing our capacity for biomanufacturing, investing in the life sciences and putting together a life sciences strategy. This is all important because we are going to need to rely on the biotech sector at some point in time, and at the very least, we need to plan ahead.
“If we do not attract talent and investment to Canada, our ideas will go to countries where the investment and talent are.”
In this sector, we primarily work off good ideas. The good ideas reside, for the most part, on computers. If we do not attract talent and investment to Canada, our ideas will go to countries where the investment and talent are as these ideas are very mobile. We will eventually get the finished product back but we will miss out on all the economic benefits of commercializing it here.
Who must do what to improve the way Canada’s biotech innovations are commercialized?
We should not underestimate how good Canada is at commercialization. There are a lot of great Canadian ideas that have been commercialized, the most recent being the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 – the vaccine was developed by Pfizer along with BioNTech out of Germany and Acuitas Therapeutics, a Canadian company. Their technology was essential here. They contributed the technology for the lipid envelope they had developed and that was essential to the delivery of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. We have had a couple of fantastic exits as well such as Clementia Pharmaceuticals, which was sold to Ipsen for $1.4 billion.
A lot of our products do get commercialized and are out there in the marketplace helping people around the world. Where we need to do a better job is to take some of the more realistic ideas and create Canadian companies out of them that actually anchor here and become mainstays from an economic standpoint.
“Entrepreneurs in biotech need to find people who show potential and mentor, teach and bring them up.”
Canada needs more entrepreneurs in the biotech sector. We need some of these companies to get sticky, stay here and find ways to grow the talent pool. We need to reach into a wider community to make sure we address our objectives for diversity and inclusion. I talk to universities and colleges all the time and when I look at the classrooms, I see many students who come from different backgrounds. Entrepreneurs in biotech need to find people who show potential and mentor, teach and bring them up. We need more people to whom we can pass along all the knowledge we have gained. Entrepreneurs in the biotech sector build up so many experiences and if they can pass along the lessons learned to others, that would be a huge benefit for the community.