For Shreya Shukla, who grew up in New Delhi, India, and studied biomedical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Canada afforded her opportunities she could not get elsewhere.
One of them was acquiring enough funding in 2003, as an international student, to do her PhD research with Peter Zandstra, director of the School of Biomedical Engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
In addition to receiving the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Shukla had an opportunity to create a start-up using the discoveries of her own research.
Today, Shukla, 34, is a co-founder and director at Notch Therapeutics, where she leads the research and development team behind the systematic process of generating T-cells – which help fight off infection and disease in the body – from induced pluripotent stem cells.
Shukla engineered parts of the process in Zandstra’s lab. The patent production was supported by the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), a not-for-profit organization, also co-founded by Zandstra.
“CCRM helps de-risk new technologies emerging from academia by leveraging extensive expertise and manufacturing infrastructure to accelerate the creation of new companies,” says Shukla. “A lot of great ideas don’t go anywhere because academics don’t know how to drive a great idea into industry.”
Across the border, in the U.S. biotech market, such accomplishments are more often the rule than the exception.
It makes for a striking contrast, says Nika Shakiba, a Canadian post-doctoral fellow at MIT.
“Here in Boston, it’s ingrained in trainees that they should be striving to innovate and not be afraid to advocate and push forward their ideas,” says Shakiba, 31, a biomedical engineer who will be joining UBC as an assistant professor next summer.
“In Canada, we need to cultivate more thirst for risky innovation and more investment for start-ups to inspire people to take that leap.”
To create an environment that is sustainable in the long-term for innovative companies and the people who work for them, Canada needs to build an ecosystem, says Zandstra.
“If you’re going to get up and move your family for a job, you want to know that if the company you work for doesn’t work out, you can move to another. That ecosystem provides you with stability in location,” he says.
“In Canada we only have two or three companies at a stage where they can support these leaders internationally. That’s pretty tenuous, compared to 40 or 50 in Boston and California.”
Part of keeping companies rooted in Canada is ensuring their access to manufacturing infrastructure and incubator facilities. “Unlike an IT start-up that could move into any warehouse with an internet connection, biomedical research can’t just get up and go; it needs specialized approvals and facilities that can be very expensive,” he says.
But as companies scale up, access to local talent can also be challenging. “We’re pretty good at building companies of 10 to 500 people, but beyond that, we need to think about how to increase the talent pipeline to keep the really big players here.”
To do this, Zandstra says the pipeline must start early in a student’s career, through co-op programs and recruitment to not only pursue graduate studies in Canada but also conduct their research here.
“You also need to provide people in companies and training programs with the additional experience that is tough to get during their time in university alone.”
For Nika Shakiba, deciding to join Zandstra’s stem cell bioengineering lab at U of T for her PhD studies back in 2006 paid off. It’s an experience she describes as a playground for the application of critical thinking and problem-solving skills towards the cutting edge of stem cell research.
While she chose MIT for her post-doc, as there were no comparable hubs for synthetic biology in Canada, she says she didn’t ever consider staying in the U.S. beyond her studies.
“My family immigrated here from Iran when I was young and everything I have become is a result of Canada,” says Shakiba, who is also working on a passion project that involves creating an online hub for scientists to receive mentorship at any stage of their careers.
“I want to stay close to my family. From a scientific viewpoint, a lot of our legacies are in stem cell research, so I want to bring that back and build it in Canada.”
So far, the industry has been very successful at attracting people back to Canada who have gone to the U.S. for additional training, says Zandstra.
“Ideally, you do want people to gain experience in other parts of the world and bring it back here – that’s part of how we learn to be better,” he says.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.