By Dr. Santa J. Ono and Dr. Gail Murphy
As published in The Hill Times on February 17, 2021.
As the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, we witnessed an unprecedented mobilization of the world’s scientific community to develop solutions. Canadian researchers and companies are making vital contributions to these efforts, especially in the area of therapeutics and vaccines. These accomplishments should be celebrated, but also studied, as they can teach us a great deal about shaping a globally competitive national innovation ecosystem.
In B.C., labs at the University of British Columbia and several life sciences companies have played an outsized role in global efforts to address COVID-19. As a hub for nanomedicine and precision medicine, B.C.’s life sciences sector was well prepared to contribute, with three Vancouver-based companies in particular leading the way.
One notable success, Acuitas Therapeutics, has developed critical drug delivery systems and contributes the lipid formulations needed for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to enter human cells.
AbCellera—which has pioneered an artificial intelligence- and microfluidics-powered antibody discovery platform—partnered with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. to develop an antibody treatment for COVID-19 authorized by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. AbCellera went on to post the largest-ever IPO for a Canadian biotechnology company, becoming the country’s most valuable biotechnology company with a market capitalization of more than $14-billion at the time of writing.
Vancouver’s Precision NanoSystems has multiple clients working on COVID-19 vaccines and recently announced that, with federal support, they will leverage their cutting-edge biomanufacturing platform to build one of Canada’s first large-scale manufacturing facilities capable of producing mRNA vaccines and other genetic medicines.
Each of these companies has been celebrated as a success story of Canadian science and innovation, not only in response to COVID-19, but in an increasingly competitive and global biotechnology industry. As Canada turns toward recovery, these successes hold important lessons for policymakers and our efforts to strengthen Canada’s innovation economy.
A core commonality is how these companies got their start. Each is a spin-off from the University of British Columbia, formed initially around research at university laboratories and fostered on campus. This ongoing connection to the university’s scientific enterprise remains vital to their success today.
Their success has been enabled by fundamental research, with UBC scientists advancing our understanding of natural processes over many years—in some cases, decades—to a point where it was possible to develop breakthrough platform technologies. In the case of Acuitas, the foundation was laid in the 1980s by a team of UBC researchers who started with a desire to understand the roles of lipids in biological membranes and realized the applications for precision drug delivery technologies.
The first lesson to be gleaned from this is the importance of broad and sustained investment in scientific research. Canada has made important strides in this area following the Fundamental Science Review and historic research investments in Budget 2018. Yet, in inflation-adjusted dollars, funding for Canada’s research granting councils is roughly the same today as it was in the mid-2000s. And the picture worsens when you consider overall spending on R&D activity in Canada, where we consistently rank in the bottom half of OECD countries and are one of the few where R&D intensity is in decline. Addressing the R&D funding gap—from universities through to the private sector—will be critical for sustaining Canada’s technology ecosystem.
A second lesson comes from the important role graduate students and post-doctoral fellows played in launching these companies. Talent development and attraction is essential to Canada’s knowledge economy. We must invest more in producing talent that drives growth and innovation in high-growth sectors through graduate scholarship and industrial internship programs. AbCellera currently plans to hire hundreds of highly skilled employees to fuel its growth, many of whom will need the capacities gained through advanced study.
Finally, Canada does not have a strong track record of maintaining its competitive edge in sectors where we’ve built an early lead. In the biomedical sciences, this edge is hampered by a lack of infrastructure for early stage translation to clinical studies, something that has been developed in the U.S. and U.K. over many decades. It is important that we complement a strong scientific foundation and broad innovation supports with targeted investments in infrastructure and the needs of emerging industries. We see that opportunity now in advanced therapeutics, but also in several other areas where Canada has early research and commercial strength that would be wise to focus on as a nation, including quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, bioproducts, agricultural technologies and clean technologies.
Canada’s ability to lead in the future economy or respond to the next crisis is already under development at Canada’s world-class research universities and innovative start-ups. The question is: can we nurture those strong starts into lasting leadership, growth, and prosperity?