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Sizing up Canada’s biomedical field- The Globe and Mail

Canadian researchers have given the world insulin, pacemakers and the discovery of stem cells, and are making headway in a number of biomedical fields, including artificial intelligence, medical imaging, quantum computing and cannabis-based treatments.

Aside from research and innovation, the potential for economic success in the biomedical field is massive, according to Jason Field, chief executive officer of Life Sciences Ontario; Ontario is currently one of the largest biomedical research centres in North America.

“We looked at what the opportunity would be for Ontario if we implemented a strategy similar to the one Massachusetts had in the early 2000s as they were developing their own biotech industry,” he says. “It turns out, we have the potential to add 100,000 jobs and another $30-billion to the provincial GDP.”

The Canadian biomedical industry has been growing steadily in recent years, even without such a strategy. The medical device industry, for example, saw revenues of $5-billion in 2019, with over 839 businesses employing nearly 20,000 people, according to IBIS World.

Between 2013 and 2017 exports in the sector grew from $2.3-billion to $3.8-billion. The pharmaceuticals and pharmacy supply wholesale industry, meanwhile, will surpass $60-billion in revenue in 2019, with 936 businesses employing more than 40,000 people.

While the numbers are trending in the right direction, however, Canada is still waiting to become a hub for global corporations, as is the case in the U.S.

“We’ve done the research side of things and the discovery side of things, but we really haven’t converted that into economic potential the same way other [countries] have,” says Fields.

He believes that greater diversity in funding sources for biomedical start-ups, including more public capital, angel investment, pension funds and federal grants, will go a long way in keeping innovation in Canada.

Though Canada has yet to see its biomedical giant, many experts see the potential for it to happen soon – and the economic opportunity it could provide is immense.

As an example, according to Life Sciences Ontario, two American biomedical companies, Amgen and Celgene, have a combined market capitalization of US$242-billion almost equivalent to the value of every mining company listed on the TSX combined.

“On the innovation side, we’re very well thought of, but we’ve always struggled to build giant companies, which is why we don’t have a global innovative pharma company here,” explains Ying Tam, the managing director of health venture services at MaRS Discovery District. “Digital health is still emerging, and there are definitely hot spots, such as AI.”

After a century of giving the world some of its most significant medical breakthroughs, Tam says the industry here is now focussed on monetization.

“We talk about the insulin story a lot at MaRS,” he says, adding that it was discovered almost a century ago across the street from his office by Sir Frederick Banting. Banting transferred the patent to U of T, which then entered into licensing deals with pharmaceutical companies, enabling the successful commercialization of insulin for broad public access.

“Over the last 10 years or so a lot of the focus has been around trying to commercialize.”

Tam explains that, prior to a policy change in the last decade, the focus of Canadian biomedical funding was on publishing research papers, not commercialization.

Then, in 2005, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research released its Commercialization and Innovation Strategy, a national initiative dedicated to making Canada “a world leader in the translation of health research into benefits for the health and economic prosperity of all Canadians.”

One of the main gaps identified by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is the need for greater investment in the sector. While the Commercialization and Innovation Strategy has helped “improve the probability of success for commercialization and innovation of intellectual property,” the industry remains reliant on major foreign multinational companies to help fund start-ups and bring promising innovations to market.

“Maybe we [in Europe] are not aware of Canada, to the same extent, as we are about the U.S.,” suggests Lars Fogh Iversen, the senior vice president of global research technologies for Denmark-based biomedical giant Novo Nordisk.

Iversen adds that it’s hard for cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Waterloo to get the attention of the global biomedical industry when they’re competing with major global hubs like Boston. “So how do you gain a bigger voice for us to really highlight where to invest?” he asks.

Although Canada has long been overshadowed by its southern neighbour, says Iversen, global awareness of Canada’s capabilities in emerging tech fields, such as AI, medical imaging and quantum computing, is gradually putting the country on the map.

“If Canada can develop strong biomedical AI capabilities, that will naturally lead to a radical shift in investment,” he says. “What I would like to see is a really good mapping of where the Canadian strongholds are that might not be that visible to a European-based company.”

As a representative of a major global biomedical company in a relatively small country, Iversen emphasizes that the opportunity for Canada is immense, if it’s able to stand out amongst the crowd.

Novo Nordisk has been a key driver for the growth of Denmark’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries for generations, he explains, allowing the small Nordic nation to become a world leader.

Iversen believes the same opportunity exists for Canada, as long as it maintains its world-leading research capabilities while continuing to explore better ways to bring those innovations to a global marketplace.

Tam agrees, and is optimistic that Canadians will soon reap the benefits of a homegrown biomedical industry. “Given that [the health-care industry] is going to be disrupted and is being disrupted now,” he says, “Canada is very well positioned.”

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