Enhanced Competitiveness Requires Holistic Public Policy


Andrew Casey

As the world’s population moves rapidly toward nine billion people, it is increasingly imperative for society to identify ways to improve how we feed, fuel and heal the world. Biotechnology and the innovations it delivers will be central to meeting the challenges presented by this rapid population growth. With a long history of biotech innovation, Canada is well positioned to benefit economically from commercially developing companies that will bring innovation forward. 

The Canadian biotechnology sector has demonstrated how research, innovation and entrepreneurship within a healthy ecosystem can produce truly remarkable innovation and companies with enormous potential to fundamentally change how we live our lives and run our economies. The sector is made of 900-plus companies that are all moving brilliant ideas from the lab to the real world. These companies are located within geographic clusters located across the country and in every province.

The recent federal budget commitment to “the single largest investment in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history” recognizes Canada’s strengths in research and innovation. The question that remains to be answered is whether Canada is well-positioned to maximize the benefit of this significant investment.

The long-range goals of the budget spending are appropriately aspirational. As Finance Minister Bill Morneau stated: “These investments are not simply to enhance the status quo. In recognition of the historic opportunity for real change, investments made though Budget 2018 will be tied to clear objectives and conditions so that Canada’s next generation of researchers—including students, trainees and early-career researchers—is larger, more diverse and better supported.”

If these stated goals are to be realized, it is essential the conditions they are tied to include: a holistic approach that links innovation to health care; improved policy and regulatory collaboration across government departments; and the development of an effective, long-term strategy to enable the commercialization of biotech through development and into the marketplace. But for Canadian health innovation, holistic and integrated public policy remains an elusive target.

It is telling that Budget 2018 contained measures for innovation, investment and the creation of the Advisory Council on the Implementation of National Pharmacare but little was done to connect them. Despite Canada’s impressive record of innovation in health-related biotechnology, we (and in fairness, other jurisdictions as well) still tend to consider health and innovation as separate issues with little or no need for policy overlap. While much of the focus in the realm of health care tends to be on short-term measures to control spending, insufficient attention is given to how innovation can improve outcomes, reduce costs and deliver economic benefits. Not surprisingly, there can often be significant underappreciation of the impact health policy can have on innovation, particularly in relation to investment. 

In the health space alone, biotechnology holds enormous promise for innovation in disease prevention and treatment. With the ability to map the human genome and edit genes comes the promise of precision medicine and the potential to combat disease, including the estimated 7,000 rare diseases that fall outside the traditional economic model for the pharmaceutical industry.

Few countries are as well positioned as Canada to take advantage of biotech’s potential to alleviate the challenges facing our health care system. In addition to Canada’s rich history of scientific discovery and development, we have a robust, diverse biotech ecosystem that extends across the country and includes: world-class research institutions and hospitals; proven biotech entrepreneurs and enterprises; a highly-educated workforce; and scientific, regulatory and legal expertise. 

After many long and challenging years of early stage development, several Canadian biotech stars are now poised to take the next step to becoming commercial Canadian companies. Importantly, a follow-on wave of next- generation companies is not far behind. And with a strong biotech investment market both in Canada and abroad, the future looks promising. 

However, in the biotech space, it must be recognized that one of the critical components needed for success is a healthy biotech ecosystem. A critical component of a healthy biotech ecosystem is the active support and engagement of the large multi-national pharma and biotech companies as they represent very significant partners, investors and adopters for early stage pre-commercial biotech companies and their innovations. Given the highly specialized nature of health biotech companies and their products, there is a critical connection between the biotech SMEs and the large multi-national companies. Indeed, while the recent success of some Canadian early-stage biotech companies is very encouraging, it is important to note that almost every one of them has one or more multi-national pharma companies as an investor and/or partner. Furthermore, the industry incubators and accelerator organizations all rely heavily on the support and partnership of the multi-national companies to drive their work in identifying and launching new Canadian companies. 

Recognizing the important catalyst role multi-national companies currently play and must continue to play in driving Canadian innovation forward, it is vital that government policy in all areas recognize the interconnectivity of all parts of the ecosystem. Public policy that is siloed and solely focused on saving dollars will not only be less effective, it will ultimately undermine Canada’s competitiveness and ability to develop innovation. By contrast, holistic public policy that recognizes the interconnectivity of the ecosystem can act to establish positive hosting conditions to greatly enhance Canada’s competitiveness and ability to attract investment and commercialize innovation.

Understandably, health care is often viewed through the rather limited and short- horizon fiscal expense lens which has a limited capacity for seeing economic value and benefit. Indeed, policy undertakings to address health care rarely take into consideration the impact the changes will have on the broader ecosystem and its ability to support innovation. Several other competing jurisdictions have recognized the competitive nature of the industry and have moved to adopt a more integrated policy approach where health care objectives and policy can support local health care innovation. 

Traditional areas of focus and jurisdictional boundaries are ingrained and hard to breach. Yet, traditional silo-based views do not provide the kind of broad thinking and policy synergies necessary to approach problems from a different perspective and achieve different results. Working together, policy specialists from different disciplines could develop novel and effective approaches to policy that combine health and innovation. We need a common vision of what is possible and what can be accomplished to take advantage of the rich legacy of biotech engineering to help solve the challenges facing our health care system.

For examples of what can be accomplished, look at the model of Australia, where the government of New South Wales has created a chief scientist and engineer office under the industry department. The chief scientist and engineer works with the scientific, engineering and research communities, the higher education sector and business to promote growth and innovation. The major objective is to build the state’s knowledge base across a range of areas, including medical research, to attract investment, create strong connections between business and academia, optimize R&D investment and identify new areas of research.

In the United Kingdom, successive governments have spent the better part of the last decade pursuing the development of a life sciences ecosystem that builds on existing links among research institutions, business and, significantly, the National Health Service.

Here in Canada, it is past time to break down the silos of responsibility between federal departments to ensure that Canada reap the full benefit of the R&D investments being made by both government and private-sector entrepreneurs. If we are to compete with other jurisdictions with respect to developing innovation and attracting investment, Canada’s public policy environment must be as competitive as possible.

The Economic Strategy Tables created by the federal government present a promising sign that we may be moving in the right direction. Envisioned in Budget 2017 as “a new model for industry-government collaboration,” these strategy tables include life sciences as well as advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital industries and clean resources, which is encouraging. The tables are industry-led but include senior officials from key departments with policy oversight of the implicated industries. It is expected the tables will identify ways to address key roadblocks impeding the economic growth of each sector. 

Good technology can come from anywhere, provided the ingredients for success are present. And that’s where biotech incubators can play a critical role. Incubators function as hubs for life science entrepreneurs, industry and academics to share ideas and for their work in product development to synergize. They enable Canadian companies to attract the attention of product and IP scouts and drive expertise into a development cycle that is outside of academic institutions, beyond the head office of a multinational. They are necessary for a competitive, validated ecosystem of biotech innovation.

Governments at all levels have recognized the important economic and social value of biotechnology innovation. Innovation agendas, corresponding policy measures and investment in early-stage science and research are all very important undertakings. If successful, these strategies and early investments will lead to cutting edge innovations and companies. But if we are to be truly successful we must be looking to take Canadian innovation and create globally competitive Canadian companies. Siloed policy development may deliver short-term results within the narrow confines of the silo but the wins will more often than not be Pyrrhic. Conversely, holistic and integrated public policy that recognizes the connectivity of an ecosystem will ultimately deliver better and longer-term results for the economy and society writ large.  

Andrew Casey is President and CEO of BIOTECanada, an Ottawa-based national industry association with over 200 members across the country in Canada’s health, industrial and biotechnological sector. andrew.casey@biotech.ca