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Building Bridges in 2018 and Beyond to Accelerate our Life Sciences Sector

2017 was a year of paradox for Ontario’s life sciences sector. We encountered significant roadblocks but we also experienced a surge of momentum. There is a sense of optimism regarding the future of life sciences in Ontario, but an equal sense that there is much work still to be done.

The challenges we faced can largely be summed up with one phrase: a pervasive sense of disconnect between industry and government. It was a wake-up call when the federal government designed a supercluster strategy with no dedicated life sciences project – despite our status as one of Canada’s largest economic growth opportunities. We watched as other sectors – namely advanced manufacturing, aerospace, and IT – were bolstered with funding, programs, and publicity.

We faced challenges to drug pricing and IP policy that threatened to move us backwards globally, disrupting the marketplace and the balance of the life sciences innovation ecosystem –with potential negative impacts for Canadian patients. We saw government at all levels talk about innovation in life sciences – but with no clear vision for Canada’s life sciences sector. What does success look like and what is the roadmap to achieve it? In Ontario, we continue to wait for findings from the provincial life sciences working group that government and the private sector can act on together.

Despite this disconnect, our companies continued to gain momentum and recognition on the international stage. In fact, several Canadian companies – two based in Ontario – were flagged among the Top 20 Life Sciences Companies to Watch in 2018.  According to PwC’s MoneyTree report, healthtech was the second biggest Canadian sector by deals and funding in Q3 of 2017and is primed for continued growth in 2018. One look at the roster we sent to JP Morgan last week tells the tale: our sector is continuing its strong and steady rise.

However, these successes have yet to translate into the kind of economic returns that the data tells us we’re capable of. We still lack that globally-significant, billion-dollar biotech success story that will propel us from middleweight to heavy hitter.

Representatives from all provincial political parties agree on the need for a coordinated strategy to get us there. To this end, we released our Blueprint for a Coordinated Ontario Life Sciences Strategy in December 2017. It lays out a comprehensive plan and recommendations for policymakers to accelerate the success of life sciences, with specific action around promotion of our sector, access to capital, talent growth, and support for innovation. The document is endorsed by leading provincial and national life sciences, health, and economic organizations.

At our Queen’s Park Day, we saw key representatives from these parties all in the same room, all agreeing that the Blueprint contains core elements that we must work together to achieve – regardless of the outcome of the next provincial election.

Life sciences is bipartisan by its very nature. It touches on almost every facet of our sustainability and success as a province and nation: the food we eat, the health of our population and environment, our research and innovation capacity to solve intractable challenges, and the jobs and wealth that fuel our economic growth.

We must agree that these issues transcend politics. They will continue to exist regardless of who is in power. We cannot afford to have valuable progress derailed by a provincial election.

Currently at risk is the Provincial Life Sciences Working Group; it was first promised by the Minister of Research, Innovation and Science in 2015, and convened early in 2017. With an election rapidly approaching, we are still waiting for its recommendations. How will we implement them without a coordinated strategy – including concrete goals – to measure them against?

We need to mend the disconnect between industry and government and across government ministries. We cannot achieve success by continuing to invest in world-class science and research while eroding intellectual property protection and the Canadian market for life sciences innovations.

This is why a pan-government life sciences strategy is so important. We must now find ways to work together if we are to secure our success. Our failure to do so will have long-term ramifications for the health and wealth of Canadians and our country’s place on the global stage.