B.C. biotech's mounting momentum

The time is ripe to revitalize the ecosystem. With bold vision – and serious commitment – it can happen 

We have a lot to be proud of when it comes to technology innovation here in B.C. Companies such as Hootsuite and Electronic Arts have helped to cement our province’s reputation as a global force – and paved the way for future bright lights such as Mobify, Blackbird and Ostara to build on that legacy.

Biotech was once like that. Not that long ago, companies such as QLT, Angiotech and ID Biomedical ushered in a golden age of health sciences discovery and development, which also resonated on the world stage. Scientist-entrepreneur luminaries like Julia Levy, Pieter Cullis and Martin Gleave were able to turn their therapeutic visions into global success stories. At one point, three of the five profitable Canadian biotech companies were based in B.C.

But the glow soon began to fade. Less attention was devoted to drug discovery and health sciences as IT and digital technologies seemed to capture the zeitgeist. Our sector had fallen short in telling the story of the promising explosive growth potential it had established, and some observers wondered if it was ever real at all.

It was and still is – now more than ever.

Our raw material – the scientific R&D upon which successes are built – is as strong as ever. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, with more than 30,000 investigators at work in 16 medical schools and more than 100 teaching hospitals and research institutes, Canada’s health sciences discovery and research output consistently ranks among the highest in the world. What’s more, B.C. is consistently punching above its weight. We’ve also established a solid infrastructure to support the transition from research labs to business enterprises.

It’s not unreasonable to assume then that we might have more than our fair share of commercial opportunities. But discovery and sheer desire are ineffective without the fuel of financing and the vision of bold leadership. Access to capital, particularly at the early stages, is tighter than ever as the number of venture capitalists has shrunk in favour of quicker returns among less risky digital and IT opportunities.

Access to talent is not that much better: in the absence of a thriving sector to attract and retain qualified candidates, there will always be a shortage.

But perhaps this is all about to change.

Recent initial public offerings (IPOs) have reminded us of the tremendous wealth and value in life sciences. This past summer Zymeworks and Clementia successfully completed IPOs, raising over US$200 million and signalling a resurgence in the sector that should encourage young startups and buoy positive developments in companies such as Aquinox, RepliCel and Augurex.

Also this spring, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) launched the Innovation Superclusters Initiative, an ambitious program to stimulate economic growth and build global leadership in the country’s innovative sectors. Health/biosciences is one of the targeted industries vying for a share of the nearly $1 billion investment, and the B.C. sector response has been strong with a proposal from the BC Tech Association for digital health and another focused on biologic manufacturing.

Accel-Rx has teamed up with CQDM for a proposal that will bring together players from the public, private and academic sectors in a pan-Canadian strategy to capitalize on formidable regional infrastructure strengths, align resources and expedite commercialization.

The Innovation Supercluster Initiative program comes at a critical juncture. Canada’s R&D spending (as a percentage of GDP) lags behind that of the majority of our developed-world counterparts, which not only puts us at a disadvantage out of the gate, but does a disservice to the superior quality of our research output.

The ISED program represents a prime opportunity but it’s just a start. Rebuilding an ecosystem eroded by restrictive risk management profiles and changing financing realties will take unwavering leadership and easier access to capital so that homegrown startups can scale and grow – and remain at home. Only then will we be able to build a sector with global staying power.

I started Accel-Rx because I believe in the tremendous untapped potential of health sciences, the same way our forebears must have believed in the raw potential of the forest and mountains. Yes, it will demand work and commitment, but the impact will be unparalleled in economic growth, knowledge capital, global leadership – and, most importantly, the lives of patients around the world.

Natalie Dakers is president and CEO of Vancouver-based Accel-Rx Health Sciences Accelerator.