- Bioengineering and biomanufacturing have widespread applications in many key sectors of the Canadian economy, intersecting with the technologies developing today.
- The government will need to continue to ramp up investments into the bioengineering and biomanufacturing sector to compete with investments made by other jurisdictions.
- Supports through organizations can provide ample networking opportunities and much needed outlets for collaboration.
For the bioengineering and biomanufacturing sector to thrive, local and global collaborations are needed. This means bringing the public sector, private sector, and academia together, as well as marrying multiple disciplines together to help push for innovation.
What are bioengineering and biomanufacturing? How can engineering biology be seen as a platform technology?
Bettina Hamelin: Bioengineering and biomanufacturing are new ways of making products that we need and use every day, but they are built on old principles. I would like to illustrate how biomanufacturing works by using a couple of examples, and I am going to use medicines and soap because those are two things we really need during this pandemic. When we think about medicines, medicines often come from plants. The willow bark is pain-relieving and turns out to be a great source of aspirin. The sweet wormwood is a source of artemisinin, which is the most used antimalarial drug. However, it is really impractical to extract these drugs out of the plant, and that is why we resorted to the chemical revolution and used synthetic chemistry to make these drugs. It works and it is cheap, but it is polluting and uses petrol, the one resource we will not be able to replenish in our lifetimes, so it is not sustainable or green.
“Bioengineering and biomanufacturing are new ways of making products that we need and use every day, but they are built on old principles.”Bettina Hamelin, President & CEO of Ontario Genomics
Fast forward to the biology revolution where we are now leveraging this recently recognized paradigm that there is DNA. DNA is the molecule that is the code of life and determines how our cells work. DNA codes for proteins and enzymes. Enzymes are what we need in our soaps to clean our laundry and proteins are what we need to eat. Proteins also have drugs such as antibodies, which we use for COVID-19.
“We are using the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing machine—biology, specifically cells—as mini factories to make proteins, enzymes, and a whole host of materials.”Bettina Hamelin, President & CEO of Ontario Genomics
In a nutshell, we are using the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing machine—biology, specifically cells—as mini factories to make proteins, enzymes, and a whole host of materials. The beauty of it is that the cells feed on waste and biomass. They do not need petroleum, and we can scale up the production of these products through a process called fermentation, just like we fermented grapes into alcohol or flour into sourdough. These are all processes that we are using in a new way.
Finally, we can modify and design cells to make the products we want and need.
What are the main arguments that you put forward in your “Engineering Biology” whitepaper?
Bettina Hamelin: In that report, we made six recommendations. I am going to highlight three main points. The first main point is that engineering biology and biomanufacturing have a huge impact on multiple sectors of Canada’s economy. By supporting a platform technology, a single investment serves multiple sectors. McKinsey put out a report last year that described us entering a bio revolution, where up to 60% of inputs into the economy could be biological and that would be worth $2 trillion to $4 trillion annually in a global market. It affects all these sectors: health, food, agriculture, and energy, which are all areas where Canada has strengths so we should care about that.
The second point we are making is other jurisdictions have been investing heavily in engineering biology. The UK has created, through 10 years of investment, a billion dollars of private sector investment. The US has been in the game, and so has China, Australia, Korea, Japan, and the list goes on. Recently, President Joe Biden asked Eric Lander to come up with the US’s new science policy, with a focus on engineering biology, artificial intelligence (AI), and the jobs of the future. Other jurisdictions are doing it and recognizing it. That alone does not mean that Canada needs to follow, but we have strength in infrastructure and the immense biomass that is required for biomanufacturing. We have a buzzing startup culture and we have created strength in genomics, science, and artificial intelligence. Government now needs to make the appropriate follow-on investments so that we can leverage our strengths and lead the world in some specific areas. We point out that Canada’s opportunities are in health through advanced therapies and protein production in food security and waste upcycling.
“Government now needs to make the appropriate follow-on investments so that we can leverage our strengths and lead the world in some specific areas.”Bettina Hamelin, President & CEO of Ontario Genomics
The third point I would like to highlight is that in order to become a leader, we have to align on a national strategy and have a roadmap to set out what is needed. If by 2040 we want to be part of that big bioeconomy, we have to work backwards and figure out what we need to do now. A public-private partnership model is the right model to do that—it would bring big industry, startup companies, and academia together. What we need is government at the table. Government is really important to help catalyze industry investment. Industry can go all over the world as there are many areas with lots of biomass, so we need to bring industry here. We have set up a network called CAN-DESyNe to facilitate that but we want all stakeholders to be part of that, including government.
Does Canada need a roadmap for engineering biology, and what roles must various stakeholders play in its implementation?
Rob Annan: New sectors like engineering biology thrive on collaboration and cooperation between all sorts of different actors. We are talking about public actors but also private actors, startup companies, established firms, investment, and so on.
With a new sector, there are lots of opportunities and different activities, so it is really important to bring people together and share what we see as common opportunities and pain points and collaborate on pooling efforts and resources in order to maximize impact. Examples of this kind of collaboration, especially between the public and private sector are evident in Silicon Valley, where you have a strong university presence through something like Stanford, matched with a lot of startup companies with lots of new ideas. You also have financing and established companies. Together you end up with a really important mix of factors. From the university side, you get new ideas coming out of research labs and a lot of talent coming out of students and training. It is important that universities understand the opportunities in the community in order to be able to help shape research and training. You also end up with startup companies and spinoffs from those universities, but they need to be linked into some of the bigger and more established players.
“It is important that universities understand the opportunities in the community in order to be able to help shape research and training.”Rob Annan, President & CEO of Genome Canada
We are at a similar point here in Canada where we have a lot of really important activity happening and some great startups in this space. We certainly have established players in different sectors such as health, agriculture, and natural resources who are very active and interested in this space, and we have some of the world’s best researchers working on engineering biology specifically but also in a lot of the other accessory areas like genomics and AI. There is a common sense that what we really need to do now is figure out collectively where the real opportunities are and how we can marshal the resources and the energies required in order to make serious advances. CAN-DESyNe is a perfect example of how you bring people to the table to have those conversations and identify areas where investment may be needed from Ontario Genomics, Genome Canada and others. Then, let all the individuals go off and do what they do best, which is run small companies and perform research in labs, knowing they are on a roadmap that is going to lead them to help build this sector.
What are some examples of collaboration between sectors that enable Canada to lead in these fields?
Rob Annan: Where we are seeing a real and transformative innovation today is in the convergence of different technologies. Genomics is still a reasonably new science but when it is combined with areas like AI, emerging areas around synthetic biology, manufacturing, and nanotechnologies, then you start to see exciting innovation happen. When we think about agriculture, for instance, it is no longer the individual farmer out in the field, testing the soil with their thumb and making judgements based on the Farmer’s Almanac. Today, agriculture is the confluence of a huge number of technologies. We fund a variety of projects in agriculture that use genomics to understand strains better and be able to build strains that are going to help with climate change, whether it is drought resistance or heat tolerance. That technology, when combined with soil microbiology, which is the ability to understand the composition of the soil in which those plants are going to be growing, sensor technology, and smart systems, you get the convergence of all of these kinds of technologies, which is where you start to see real innovation.
“Disciplines like genomics, chemistry, chemical synthesis, manufacturing, and miniaturization are all coming together and converging to open up new areas that would not have been possible.”Rob Annan, President & CEO of Genome Canada
We are seeing the same happen in engineering biology. Disciplines like genomics, chemistry, chemical synthesis, manufacturing, and miniaturization are all coming together and converging to open up new areas that would not have been possible. When you combine that with Canada’s strength in skills and training, a highly educated workforce, and strong universities and colleges producing really talented people, we have almost a perfect mix for being able to take advantage of this opportunity.
What steps must be taken and by whom to establish cross-country collaborations and interdisciplinary knowledge transfer?
Bettina Hamelin: We started with the white paper and we want to really flesh out the roadmap and identify some projects where groups of people can come together and work on waste upcycling or training, for example, because where else do you learn this blurring of disciplines? This whole area of reskilling and upskilling our workforce and also skilling our upcoming talent is really important. Enabling cross-disciplinary conversations is what needs to happen and that is what CAN-DESyNe is made for. We also need to connect not only nationally but internationally, because a lot of jurisdictions are very much into this. The US has invested $87 million in a biomanufacturing design piece out of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). They are going to build modules of biomanufacturing, and we are talking to them about collaboration. We want the world to be the market for Canada. We want to upcycle value-added products that we can sell to the world, so we do not have to buy them for others. That requires international collaboration, which CAN-DESyNe has established.
Rob Annan: One thing that is underappreciated is the need to create a forum to come together and share information, share challenges, identify opportunities and build trust. We think a lot about hard infrastructure such as investments in factories, buildings, and systems, and we think about action and funding. All of these things are important but what is really important is creating an environment where like-minded individuals contributing to a common purpose have the opportunity to come together regularly. From my experience sitting where I do in Genome Canada, we work with academics, research hospitals, and industry across the country. Industry is more than happy to come to the table and be very open about the challenges they are facing, especially if they believe that the table is a place where they might be able to identify potential solutions down the road.
It is easy to underappreciate the ‘soft infrastructure’ that supports sectors, so things like CAN-DESyNe are absolutely crucial to creating a table where you can invite people to collaborate, and it is not top-down. No one at CAN-DESyNe is saying, “This is what you all have to go and do.” It is instead a very bottom-up and organic way for the community to say, “Here is where we are seeing an opportunity and maybe we should work on that together.”
“It is crucial to have a forum for idea generation and sharing that then follows on to the kinds of investments that are going to make an impact.”Rob Annan, President & CEO of Genome Canada
We see that in the COVID-19 space, where bringing people together smooths the system out to find ways of sharing information, technology transfer, best practices, et cetera. A forum like this is absolutely crucial and from there, you get an opportunity to point out the actions we need to be taking, bring people together on projects, ask for feedback, and then look for the funding needed to make that project happen. It is crucial to have a forum for idea generation and sharing that then follows on to the kinds of investments that are going to make an impact and difference.
Bettina, is there anything you would like to add?
The bio revolution is happening now—products are on the market, other jurisdictions are investing, and we cannot miss out on that. If we miss out on it, we will be buying products from others. We are here now, we have created and mobilized a community to help Canada and its industries grow into this bio revolution, and if we work together, with a long-term view on this, we can have the ideas and the solutions that Canadians need. The time is now, and the opportunities are there for us to take.