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The University of Toronto campus on June 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Leah Cowen is vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto and chief scientific officer at Bright Angel Therapeutics.

Canadian researchers have pioneered medical innovations for more than a century: The discovery of insulin in 1921, stem cells in the 1960s and the development of cancer-fighting “sharp-shooter” drugs in 2013 all took place in Toronto. Such life sciences innovations have led to companies that create high-paying, high-skill jobs and opportunities here at home, especially for young people.

But in what has become a familiar pattern, made-in-Canada innovations are too often leaving our borders, only to be commercialized abroad.

So why is Canada not the headquarters of more major life sciences companies? We are a world leader in the field, but truthfully, we’ve been too shy about selling it. We need to ensure there is enough funding spread out across all stages of the life sciences pipeline – starting at initial research discovery, but especially commercialization – to foster growth here.

Atomwise, for instance, is a startup that uses machine learning to supercharge the drug discovery process. It found its footing at a University of Toronto incubator, but it ultimately decamped for San Francisco, where the founders were able to raise almost US$175-million.

This trend is nothing new. When insulin was discovered at the U of T in 1921, it was the U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly that stepped up to help commercialize the life-saving hormone.

Today, Canada’s research excellence remains elite on the world stage. Toronto is a global life sciences hub: It is home to four universities, several leading research institutes, 14 world-class hospitals, more than 230 startups and thousands of researchers who collectively take in more than $1.5-billion in research funding every year. At the U of T alone, more than 1,000 patent applications have been filed over the past decade.

There are certainly substantial investments on the front end when it comes to research infrastructure and intellectual property creation. To help address Canada’s commercialization challenge, the new Schwartz Reisman Innovation Campus at U of T will create a massive new space for work on cutting-edge research in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Other universities and colleges, as well as MaRS, the Vector Institute and various programs across the country, also provide initial support.

But what about the other end of the pipeline: commercialization? Why aren’t we getting our innovations to market and turning Canadian startups into the next Eli Lilly or Sanofi, which can then be headquartered in Canada?

The reality is that transforming an idea into a product takes significant investment – from the private sector and from government. And in this regard, Canada is falling short. Startups are looking elsewhere for capital to commercialize cutting-edge innovations, treatments and therapeutics.

Other jurisdictions are putting up the necessary funds to support the full innovation pipeline. For instance, the United States invests more than US$3-billion annually in Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, which are designed to commercialize the type of life sciences research at which Canada excels.

And last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to devote US$200-billion to scientific research, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing and other technology. Britain, meanwhile, has invested £200-million in its Life Sciences Investment Programme, which includes later-stage venture capital for its life sciences startups to help them stay and build the companies in the country.

With Canada facing a looming economic growth crisis, Canadian policy makers will need to look at ways to spur homegrown innovation, and take a page from these jurisdictions to make that ingenuity stay here. The $3-billion the federal government recently unveiled for innovation spending is a great start, but more investment is needed to enhance the competitiveness and productivity of our own life sciences ecosystem. While policy and structure are important factors, more and better funding is key to creating stable and sustained innovation programs.

If Canada doesn’t address its commercialization deficit once and for all, innovations and talent will go elsewhere – and that could slow the country’s economic recovery and potentially hinder our ability to withstand the next health threat.

With greater government investment, Canada could fully unlock and retain the potential of these early-stage life sciences startups, commercialize made-in-Canada discoveries, strengthen our health care system, improve health outcomes and drive economic growth for years to come.

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