Life Sciences Ontario gala highlights urgent need for leadership, policy change in Canada’s science and biotech sector

Life Sciences Ontario hosted its annual awards gala on Feb. 24, 2016 at Toronto’s Liberty Grand, bringing together more than 400 leaders in Canada’s science and biotech community, including government, academia, and the private sector.

The event, which was attended by senior officials from all parties and levels of government, recognized individuals who have contributed to the sector’s success. It featured awards for lifetime achievement, public and community service, volunteerism, youth mentorship, and industry leadership. It also served to highlight the pressing need for change from policymakers, and from within the industry itself.

In his opening remarks, LSO President & CEO, Dr. Jason Field, emphasized that life sciences can, and should be, the next economic engine for Ontario and Canada — but only if we organize to take action, now.

“We are not building a knowledge economy in Ontario, we are living in a knowledge economy. The future is now, and the question we need to ask ourselves collectively is how we can best leverage our science assets to create a globally significant, made-in-Ontario biotech success story to anchor this knowledge economy.”

In addressing the audience, Hon. Reza Moridi, Minister of Research and Innovation, reaffirmed the Province’s commitment to the creation of a public/private life sciences working group, to strategize how we can further the sector’s growth. This commitment on behalf of the Province is a direct result of LSO’s advocacy, initially announced at our Policy Forum in December 2015, by Hon. Giles Gherson, Deputy Minister, Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure.

According to LSO’s 2015 Sector Report – an industry-first summary of the state of Life Sciences in Ontario – conservative estimates put the sector’s annual revenues at $40.5B, contributing $21.6B to Ontario’s Gross Domestic Product, directly. Despite increasing global competition, Ontario’s life sciences sector has grown its economic contributions to Ontario and Canada over the last 10 years. Yet, without action, the sector’s momentum is at risk of stalling.

“With all our strengths and investments in science, why does Ontario lack a homegrown, billion-dollar biotech success story?”

–Dr. Jason Field, President & CEO, Life Sciences Ontario

This point was emphasized by speakers throughout the evening, including Lifetime Achievement Award winner Murray McLaughlin, Executive Director, Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, and David Allan, Member of the Board of Formation Biologics.

In accepting the Life Sciences Leadership Award, Mr. Allan noted that Canada’s massive contributions to biotech are not being commercialized or capitalized on, and called for the federal government to address lack of risk capital by instituting flow-through shares for life sciences startups. Flow-through shares – already in place for Canada’s mining industry – encourage investment in companies undertaking scientific exploration, which are not yet profitable; these tax losses are passed on to shareholders, who benefit from a reduced cost of investment.

“Biological resources have sired single companies abroad more valuable than Canada’s entire mining industry and tens of companies abroad each more valuable than Canada’s forest industry,” Allan remarked. “Toronto has yet to demonstrate that it appreciates that the commercialization of this resource – that lines University Avenue and circles Queen’s Park – would dwarf every other economic activity in this jurisdiction.”

Minister Moridi, and Hon. Michael Chan, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade, both commented at the podium on the need for new facilities to help attract world-class biotech events to Toronto, and put Ontario on the global life sciences map.

LSO and Minister Moridi’s office led a bid this past summer to host the 2019 BIO International Convention. BIO is the largest global event for the biotechnology industry, drawing more than 15,000 biotech and pharma leaders, annually; our bid was impressive, but ultimately unsuccessful due to the size limitations of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Minister Moridi emphasized the need for a new facility – potentially on Toronto’s CNE grounds – that can accommodate upwards of 20,000 people.

There is also an urgent need to educate youth about careers in the life sciences, and ensure they receive opportunities for mentorship and advancement. Ontario’s youngest science graduates face a startling unemployment rate of 18.9 per cent.

In accepting LSO’s Community Service Award, Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, Founder and President of Let’s Talk Science, spoke to the challenges of preparing youth for careers in an industry that is rapidly changing. Dr. Schmidt was introduced by Hon. Helena Jaczek, Minister of Community and Social Services.

More than four million youth and educators to date have been reached through Let’s Talk Science’s programs. “Our real passion and our goal is to help our kids get ready for a future that is increasingly impacted by science and technology, and one we can’t predict for them now,” Dr. Schmidt remarked.

The impact of the gala and its speakers was echoed in MPP Michael Harris’ remarks to the Legislature last week, in which he highlighted the award winners and their contributions.

There is much work still to be done.

Most pressingly, Ontario needs a coordinated economic strategy to support the life science sector’s growth and address its key challenges. Doing so will address a significant economic opportunity for the province while also providing deep social benefits to its citizens.

For a full list of LSO’s 2016 award recipients, and their bios, visit: https://www.lifesciencesontario.ca/events/awardsGala/index.php .

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ABOUT LIFE SCIENCES ONTARIO (LSO)

Life Sciences Ontario (LSO) is a member-driven organization that represents more than 150 life science companies, service providers, academic and research institutes, partner organizations, individuals and students in Ontario. Together, our members represent more than 17,000 employees, researchers and students across the provinces life sciences sector. LSO collaborates with governments, academia, industry and other life science organizations in Ontario and across Canada to promote and encourage commercial success throughout the diverse life sciences sector. We do this through advocacy, economic development, mentorship and professional development programs, educational and networking events and promotion of our industry locally, nationally and internationally. LSO is the Voice for Life Sciences in Ontario.