By KARIMAH ES SABAR
Canada is often a leader in initiating creative programs for enabling innovation and commercialization, but it does not always stay the course long enough to benefit from their outcomes and economic benefits.
COVID-19 is taxing the world’s health-care systems like never before, and Canada is no exception. During this challenging time, one of the many lessons being relearned is that we need to keep mobilizing our intellectual capital so that we can continue to develop innovative products and solutions that benefit Canada and the global community.
Globally, we have a pharmaceutical industry with a heightened appetite for breakthrough technologies in therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostics, digital health, and biosciences in general. In Canada, the highly successful federal Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program has been feeding some of these pipelines. The NCEs have been pivotal in building world-leading networks around Canada’s core academic strengths and enabling the development of key innovations in partnership with industry and through the creation of spin-off companies. That being said, 2024 marks the final year and close of these valuable NCEs. It is important that we find a way to build on the foundation of the NCE program and establish a sustainable and strong translational innovation pipeline, which includes:
- Stable, sustained funding systems which provide benefits to Canadians and remain in place regardless of changes in political leadership;
- Bolstering the ongoing training opportunities for Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) in areas of strategic national importance;
- Clear and tangible metrics of success from the NCEs (including commercialization and spin-off activities, industry engagement through investment and collaboration and impact on Canadians).
When COVID-19 hit, we were ahead of the game in many respects—Canadian companies like AbCellera and Medicago already had the expertise to quickly pivot and develop COVID-19 specific therapeutics and vaccine candidates. Provincial and federal public health authorities responded quickly as well, redeploying staff and fast-tracking training. However, there were gaps. The pandemic highlighted Canada’s inability for vaccine production, in spite of Canada’s history of great vaccine contributions through Connaught Laboratories (now Sanofi Pasteur). A well-mapped progression plan that ensures academic discoveries are managed along the innovation continuum from discovery to translation to commercialization is important, and the continued support of unique vehicles such as the NCEs to support this progression is invaluable. Today’s successful companies strongly believed the NCEs of Canada represented a remarkable vehicle for the Canadian scientific ecosystem to address such important scientific challenges.
The newer generation of NCEs funded after 2014 have already shown positive impacts. For example, GlycoNet—a leader in carbohydrate-based drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics—has supported the creation of nascent companies like 48Hour Discovery and PanTHERA CryoSolutions, both have secured millions of dollars in foreign capital and industry partnerships through made-in-Canada health technologies. When it comes to scaling up, BioCanRx is boosting domestic manufacturing capacity for life-saving cancer therapies by expanding facility hubs across Canada.
NCEs have capabilities and leverage that universities on their own do not—they bring a national level of awareness and network collaboration to sectors of strategic focus. Strong intellectual property clusters jointly managed by the partner universities and the networks create a powerful basis for product development. The NCEs bring their particular areas of focus to commercially viable platforms, while the program sustains and furthers academic innovations, bringing together groups both nationally and internationally. The NCEs enhance technology transfer offices at universities so that multi-institutional projects can move forward faster and more easily towards translation and commercialization. The program has a long history of connecting across the country to train our next-generation workforce, which is essential for a knowledge-based economy.
Importantly, the NCE program has a significant track record of translating and mobilizing knowledge. As of 2017, NCE-funded networks and centres had created 147 spinoff companies and 1,332 start-ups. NCE-funded networks and centres also trained nearly 50,000 people. The outcomes not only have contributed to the creation of knowledge-based industry, but also provided the intellectual capital—skilled personnel—who will be driving this economy into our future.
A program contributing this expansively to Canada’s ecosystem does not come together overnight. It takes time, investment of capital, talent, and people to create and build it to where it is now. Once dismantled, it would be hard to re-establish these types of deep, complex networks, and training programs required to develop highly qualified personnel, for the biosciences industry to flourish.
Canada needs sustainability and continuity from organizations and networks that are providing the necessary training for skilled personnel, driving innovation, and building a pipeline for commercialization. Canada is often a leader in initiating creative programs for enabling innovation and commercialization, but it does not always stay the course long enough to benefit from their outcomes and economic benefits. Together we must build strong sustainable public-private partnerships in translation that help drive the commercialization engine for academic discovery. The NCEs are a key enabler to the life sciences ecosystem and they should be built on and taken to the next level.
Karimah Es Sabar is board chair of GlycoNet and was chair of the federal Health and BioSciences Economic Strategy Table.
This article is sourced from The Hill Times: https://www.hilltimes.com/2021/02/03/intellectual-capital-is-canadas-most-important-natural-resource/281411