The federal government has asked three domestic medical-technology companies to ramp up production on Canadian soil as part of its wartime-like industrial strategy response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ottawa’s Spartan Bioscience Inc., which makes portable DNA testing machines that can produce coronavirus test results in 30 minutes, received a letter of intent from Ottawa on Friday. The company can potentially source thousands of the machines a week from its Taiwanese manufacturer Wistron Corp. – and hundreds of thousands of individual single-use testing DNA-testing cartridges, used by the machine, from a local supplier.
Toronto-based Thornhill Research Inc., which makes portable, intensive-care units for military customers around the world, complete with ventilators, expects to ramp up dramatically after receiving its letter of intent Friday as well.
The company has deployed only 200 units globally and has the capacity to make up to 50 a month at its Toronto facilities. But it has tentatively lined up a large local manufacturer that could make thousands, if needed, in the coming months, said Thornhill CEO Lesley Gouldie.
“We’re ready and waiting” for the government to come back with specific demands, she said in an interview. “We just need to know how much so we can hit the Go button.”
Meanwhile, the government has asked AMD Medicom Inc., based in Pointe-Claire, Que., to open its first domestic manufacturing facility to crank out N95 protective masks and surgical masks in vast quantities for the Canadian market.
The global manufacturer of medical safety equipment has been requisitioned by governments in China, Taiwan and France, where it has manufacturing facilities, to redirect export-bound products made in those countries to meet their local pandemic-related needs. Otherwise, it was subjected to export bans.
The federal government, in an effort to mobilize Canada’s industrial capabilities to fight the pandemic, is also in talks with the auto sector to retool factories to make equipment such as ventilators, while spirits makers have started making hand sanitizer.
While the three technology companies were inundated with entreaties from potential private funders on Friday, the government is also prepared to provide financing to help them ramp up if needed, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said in an interview.
The moves announced Friday are significant for at least two reasons. Decades of economic globalization efforts have suddenly been cast aside by governments as they look to secure urgently needed supplies to fight the pandemic on their home soil, even if it means cutting off other countries previously served by factories within their borders.
That has left countries, including Canada, scrambling to tap their domestic manufacturers “to ensure that we can quickly produce here in Canada the things we need,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.
It also has the potential to transform Canada’s innovation sector as some technology companies suddenly find themselves vaulted into the big time because they produce equipment suddenly deemed necessary for human survival.
"This is really the moment when the world realizes that rapid, portable DNA testing is of extreme importance to health-care systems around the world,” said Spartan CEO Paul Lem, whose 14-year-old company has spent years developing markets for its innovative machines, including testing water tanks in office buildings for toxic bacteria.
“This is putting our company on the map. It’s our moment to do really good things.”
For some innovators, it’s also a moment they’ve been waiting for, albeit not in the circumstances they’d imagined, to finally get orders from domestic customers. Thornhill has sold to the U.S. Marines and defence customers in Israel, Australia and Singapore – but not here.
“It’s disappointing that we have this fantastic technology and we haven’t been able to penetrate the domestic market until now,” Ms. Gouldie said. “This means we’ll finally be selling [at home] and getting Canadian technology into the hands of Canadians, where it belongs.”
Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group for the domestic technology sector, said: ”In this hour of need, domestic innovators are more than ready to answer the call and are eager to help.”
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