The Case for a Canadian Health and Life Sciences Supercluster

The federal government recently announced the shortlist for its $950 million innovation superclusters initiative, with a notable omission: Out of nine proposals, not one is dedicated to health and life sciences — government’s single biggest budgetary challenge, our largest economic growth opportunity, and a priority for most Canadians.

The only shortlisted proposal to mention health is a digital technology initiative addressing precision medicine, among a basket of other challenges including the environment, manufacturing, and resources. This oversight is part of an ongoing lack of commitment to life sciences that will have significant economic and social impacts.

The potential missed economic opportunity alone is enormous. In the US, two biotech companies, Amgen and Celgene, have a combined market capitalization of US $242B, rivalling the entire Canadian mining sector listed on the TSX (over 1,200 companies with a market cap of US $244B). Both companies were founded on great science (which Canada has in spades) and underwent rapid growth to become global biotech giants. Our own life sciences companies have shown similar promise as of late.

In 2016, Sunovion Pharmaceuticals acquired Toronto’s Cynapsus Therapeutics to the tune of $624 million. Bayer AG and Versant Ventures inked a US $225-million investment to establish Toronto-based stem cell research company, BlueRock Therapeutics. Johnson & Johnson chose Toronto for its first JLABS accelerator outside the US and recently established JLABS POD in Edmonton. And the dollars from major multinationals keep rolling in: Toronto’s Synaptive Medical announced a key growth equity deal with General Atlantic. Ottawa’s Turnstone Biologics secured $41.4 million in financing. Merck recently announced a $15 million investment in oncology patient care in Quebec.

However, this level of investment will not continue without concerted efforts on behalf of government to scale and grow our companies. This is where the need for a supercluster strategy comes in. It is the missing link in harnessing our significant investments in research, life sciences education, and public health care — one the federal government should re-evaluate and address.

It’s eminently clear Canada’s investments in public healthcare and education are not returning the value we expect. We lead the OECD in educational attainment, producing more than 40,000 STEM graduates annually in Ontario alone, yet we lag behind the OECD average in employment. As a nation, we spend billions annually in basic health research yet we are struggling to contain the sustainability of our $228B public healthcare system.

Our innovations are not translating into outcomes. We need to ask why.

Then there’s the social impact of life sciences. Ask any Canadian what they value most and surely their health will be at or near the top of their list. But without a strategy, how can we leverage our scientific research, highly-educated talent, and emerging prowess in biotech to achieve better outcomes for all Canadians?

Perhaps this lassez-faire attitude is a symptom of past success: Canadians have benefitted from ground-breaking discoveries like insulin, the cardiac pacemaker, and advances in stem cells and genomics. Toronto and Hamilton were the first cities in North America to be diphtheria-free — nearly ten years ahead of other metropolitan centres — in large part due to innovation at Sanofi Pasteur’s Connaught Campus in North York.

The value of these discoveries is immeasurable and, ironically, undervalued. It’s as if we passively believe we can continue generating life-changing innovations without investment and strategy to match.

Looking toward the challenges of an aging population coupled with the pace of technology and scientific discovery, we cannot keep making haphazard withdrawals from our “innovation bank.” We need to plan how we will harness and scale our assets.

So why won’t the government act? Healthcare sustainability and economic growth are long-term measures. Politics work in four-year increments. Projects involving artificial intelligence and digital technologies showcase Canada’s tech-forward mindset. But government ignores our sector at the peril of all Canadians. We need stronger leadership and long-term vision to truly position Canada as a global life sciences supercluster.

Given the above, the federal government would be wise to reconsider its shortlist and create a dedicated supercluster for health and life sciences.