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How to get Canada’s health research out of the lab and into the market Add to ...

Dino Trevisani is president of IBM Canada.

Across the Canadian health-care system, there are deep disconnects that threaten our ability and capacity to innovate. Among the most troubling: We are not putting the right tools and resources into the hands of researchers who have the potential to truly transform quality of life.

Identifying new drug therapies, understanding the role that genetics and environment play in disease prevention or progression, developing vaccines for emerging threats such as the Zika virus – these are all computationally intensive yet categorically imperative pursuits. Our researchers’ success would not only benefit humankind tremendously, but also potentially boost our knowledge-based economy, bringing new opportunities for commercialization and exportation of Canadian “born in the lab” breakthroughs.

Federal and provincial governments have done an admirable job of addressing this challenge. They invest hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up our computing infrastructure, to fund public scientific research, to support an infrastructure and environment conducive to developing and keeping, smart, skilled knowledge workers.

Indeed, on Feb. 24, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced another $22-million to help small- and medium-sized enterprises innovate. IBM is taking part in this initiative with an additional $24-million in-kind contribution of cloud and cognitive technologies and associated expertise. This puts our in-kind contribution to Ontario’s ecosystem at about a quarter of a billion dollars of technology and expertise since 2012. Our approach helps not just academic researchers but small and large businesses, startups and developers to gain access to business strategies and computing tools they need to grow.

Organizations working to transform health care have been among the first to benefit, principally because the challenges this field faces are endemic. The lion’s share of most provincial budgets goes to health care. Increasing costs, an aging population and a surge in chronic disease puts more pressure on an already strained system. At the same time, we’re seeing a convergence of market forces that position the health care industry for massive transformation. The new era of cognitive computing is helping organizations worldwide leap forward to advanced solutions spanning clinical research, patient care and population health and wellness.

In Canada, our legacy in health care research and innovation is impressive: insulin, Pablum, the testing of the polio vaccine, a better understanding of how spinal cords regenerate, the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene, an HIV-AIDS treatment – the list is lengthy. With great work continuing to be done, and the computational bottleneck cleared, our health care future could be just as bright.

Yet we’re a large country with a small population. So how do we really compete on a global scale to get to that brighter future? Canada can distinguish itself even further by continuing to capitalize on the large corporate entities that exist here and collaborating to create unique centres of excellence with knowledge workers and capabilities that are truly differentiating on a global scale.

Take Hamilton Health Sciences and precision medicine. One of Canada’s top two research hospitals serves this city of just over half a million with blue-collar roots. They have a cadre of more than 1,500 principal investigators and research staff who dedicate themselves daily to driving new discoveries in patient care and disease prevention.

In sports, the Toronto Raptors recently showcased the art of the possible for 21st-century talent management within their new BioSteel Centre practice facility. In New Brunswick, there’s a growing pocket of excellence around cybersecurity. These centres of excellence will leverage modern technology and attract new business investment to the communities they serve, so the entire country benefits.

Imagine how much more quickly health discoveries could surface, make their way out of research labs and become embedded in commercially viable products or services by young, forward-thinking entrepreneurs – if only we were better at collaborating, using leading tools and technologies, and better leveraging global businesses that already exist in Canada.

Last month, The Globe and Mail reported on how Canada’s researchers say a lack of computational capacity is stymying their ability to work effectively. Big science takes big data, and crunching it takes big computers. When there aren’t enough big computers, science suffers and we fall behind our global competitors.

In Canada, innovation is on everyone’s agenda but it’s too often pursued in silos or simply left in the labs to stagnate. This has to change.

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