OBIO Globe & Mail Op-Ed: Canada needs a strategy to reach its biotech potential

Canada has a well-known research sector and relatively strong infrastructure to nurture startups, but once biotech companies start to grow, they often stall and struggle for resources. They become focused on keeping the lights on instead of moving commercialization forward, or are forced to sell at bargain-basement prices. Large multinational firms face unpredictable investment returns due to a number of factors.

For the Canadian health-care industry to compete globally, we need a plan that addresses capital requirements, human resources, regulations, market access and long-term predictability.

As such, the development of a sector-specific industrial strategy should be a top priority in order to fully develop and build Canada’s health-care industry. In its current state, it is a source of significant untapped potential.

While the new federal government has voiced a commitment to fostering innovation, there has been no mention of specific initiatives aimed at bolstering the human health technology sector.

Yet, the World Health Organization estimates that $6.5-trillion is spent on health care worldwide annually, a figure that represents significant economic potential for jurisdictions with sustainable health-care industries capable of solution-driven R&D and product commercialization.

A robust health-care industry is a key pillar of any thriving knowledge-based economy; in Canada, it could create sustainable development and provide a solution to both demographic and economic challenges.

Without critical policy changes that provide a consistent framework within which to operate, Canadian bioscience companies will lack global competitiveness, losing the opportunity to create jobs and health-care solutions that could bridge the divide between economic development and health-care demands.

The Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization conducted extensive consultations with senior executives from both local companies and multinational enterprises. There is general agreement that Canada is not capitalizing on its full potential.

Canada’s layers of bureaucracy and lack of transparency and predictability at federal and provincial levels are seen to stymie investment and growth. Approaches to innovation adoption, reimbursement and procurement were seen as significant barriers; there are too many hurdles to make innovations accessible to patients, and the administration and delivery of health care is often inefficient. Further, there is a widespread feeling that Canada lacks trust and a collaborative approach between stakeholders.

There’s also a perceived lack of globally experienced industry talent. While eager graduates may be abundant, there are not enough seasoned employees with the global networks and experience required to take a product from science to manufacturing and revenues. As a result of financing challenges within the industry, Canada is experiencing a talent exodus as graduates and sector specialists move to where the jobs, security and dollars are.

The gravest concern among small- and medium-sized enterprises is the availability of appropriate capital dedicated to commercializing health science and building health-care companies. Solutions developed and commercialized here could be used to improve health-care outcomes and reduce the burden of health-care spending.

In January, OBIO provided three significant recommendations to the provincial standing committee on finance and economics, all of which were focused on furthering bioscience industry priorities: Build companies and a sustainable industry that will strengthen Ontario’s economy; employ the best-educated, most innovative workers in the world; and provide cost-effective health-care solutions.

If Canada is to capitalize on the potential in its biotech sector, we have to make it a priority and collaborate on a long-term strategy codified in a national industrial policy.