Maura Campbell is the president and CEO of the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization.
Cate Murray is the president and CEO of the Stem Cell Network.
Our health research and commercialization systems are in trouble – they need our attention now. We have a world-leading legacy in the life sciences. Canadians invented insulin, the pacemaker and the first Ebola vaccine. We discovered the genes that cause ALS and cystic fibrosis. Canadians are also pioneers in the field of regenerative medicine through the discovery of stem cells and how to use them to treat disease and illness.
Yet, despite our country’s ability to make groundbreaking discoveries, something happens along the way that is keeping us from realizing the full value of our research efforts. Many Canadian innovations never make it out of the lab. If they do, they end up south of the border.
As a result of poor commercialization of intellectual property, we lose not only direct economic and health benefits but indirect benefits too – specifically, attracting and retaining a skilled talent base with the passion, know-how and commitment to produce made-in-Canada health products that will ensure our country’s health security and prosperity.
This is not to say that Canadian discoveries never get commercialized – they do, but most often in the United States. Canadian researchers trained in Canada continue to make cutting-edge discoveries – but in the U.S. And Canadian patent holders do create life-science startups, but inevitably they must follow the money, and so they too go to the U.S.
We need to create a “sticky” environment that will power our academic labs and biotech companies to compete and succeed on the world stage. This requires a national effort by governments, research institutions, life-science companies, Canadian investors and mission-driven research entities.
Every day, game-changing research is happening across our country. Cell therapies are being tested with the potential to take diabetics off insulin by reprogramming the body to naturally generate beta cells producing it organically. Tissue engineering technologies are on the verge of transforming liver disease treatment. Personalized therapies are being developed for cancers, rare diseases and injuries. Imagine a future where biological pacemakers grown from cells are the standard of care, offering less risk of rejection and no invasive surgery.
Sadly, these innovations will never see the light of day or benefit a single Canadian patient if we don’t provide the conditions needed for commercial success.
We need to get back to stable and predictable government funding for research. Research is at the heart of innovation and commercialization; without it, health care advances will simply stall. But it goes far beyond that. We need patent policies and incentives to support patent retention so it’s not more attractive for our researchers to license their IP to foreign entities. We need an agile regulatory system able to efficiently assess the diversity of advanced therapeutics on the horizon. We need to support Canadian ventures so they can be first in on our research. We also require a health care system able to both test and procure Canadian therapies and technologies. Finally, and equally important, we need a talent pool that can work where science and business meet.
We all hold responsibility and must do our part. Canada’s Stem Cell Network and the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization recently launched a new partnership to pool collective know-how, resources and networks to help create the conditions for the successful uptake and commercialization of research and to ensure that Canada has a skilled labour force able to work within the country’s life-sciences industry. We’re doing this through investment summits, business bridge programs and practical workshops – all aimed at commercializing research, fostering biotech startups and teaching PhDs and others how to transition from academia to careers in biotech or pharma.
We are acting now because the time to reflect has passed. Canada needs to up its game if we want to be globally competitive and give our researchers, biotechs and next-generation leaders a fighting chance. It’s time for us to build the sticky environment needed for Canada’s life sciences to thrive.
If we get this right, we can do great things – and that will translate into better health outcomes and health security for Canadians.
Now is the time for all of us to do our part.