B.C. government seeks to develop global life sciences hub

Monte Stewart
April 26, 2022

A British Columbia government $195-million injection into health and genomics research will further the province’s goal of developing a life sciences and biomanufacturing hub, say researchers and provincial officials.

Premier John Horgan’s NDP government will provide $116.6 million to Michael Smith Health Research BC (MSHRBC) and $78 million to Genome BC from 2022 to 2025. The money will go to research projects covering health, agriculture, clean technology, and pandemic emergency preparedness, according to the province.

According to MSHRBC and Genome BC, the funds will also help universities develop more top talent, give smaller innovation companies greater access to provincial and national funding, and improve Canada's chances of commercializing research and development projects.

“The provincial government’s commitment to Michael Smith Health Research BC will help create a diverse, inclusive and competitive life sciences sector that generates significant economic benefit to the province, and delivers improved health and healthcare for all British Columbians,” said Dr. Bev Holmes, PhD, the president and CEO of MSHRBC in a statement that the group provided to Research Money.

The MSHRBC statement added that the funding will help BC continue to grow as a global life sciences hub by nurturing new talent, leveraging the research capacities of BC’s post-secondary sector and supporting employment across it.

Long-term resilience at risk

If the pandemic’s impact on research goes unaddressed, added MSHRBC, the long-term resilience of BC’s health research system will be at risk, particularly when it comes to recruiting, developing, and retaining scientists and research-oriented health sciences professionals, and generating and using research evidence. MSHRBC said it will use the funds for additional pandemic response, including:

  • Talent continuity funds that include bridge funding for early-career researchers to resume and complete paused health research studies and recover lost productivity, and seed funding for early-career researchers to initiate new health research;
  • Regional talent awards that include dedicated contributions designed to achieve greater diversity of funding across the province in partnerships with organizations in the respective regions, and,
  • Development of academic-industry internships with other agencies to expand the skills of early-career research talent through internships in BC-based life sciences companies.

“This experience will produce industry-ready talent, and partnerships will increase and accelerate commercialization opportunities that arise,” said MSHRBC.

MSHRBC launched in October 2021 through the consolidation of the former BC Academic Health Science Network and two-decade-old Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. The new group’s main areas of work include providing grants that develop research talent and translate scientific evidence into practice and policy and address BC-specific health and health-system priorities.

MSHRBC also builds and supports provincial research infrastructure, supports the advancement of research methods, and seeks to strengthen research and knowledge mobilization in BC’s healthcare system by building on the assets and expertise of provincial, regional, and First Nations health authorities and forging stronger connections between academic and health sectors.

Principal investigators must hold positions in a BC-based institution that has a memorandum of understanding with MSHRBC.

Grants aligned with recovery plan

The MSHRBC and Genome BC grants were allocated in BC’s 2022 budget and are aligned with the Stronger BC economic plan, which calls for the creation of a global life sciences and biomanufacturing hub as the province recovers from pandemic impacts.

The financial injection came after BC dealt with devastating wildfires, flooding, and severe economic disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Horgan government is looking to build on pandemic research successes achieved over the past two years.

During a March news conference on the grants, Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon said virtually every COVID-19 vaccine that reached late-stage development in 2020 was developed or manufactured in BC.

“The life-saving impact of this work cannot be overstated,” said Kahlon.

Dr. Pascal Spothelfer (PhD), president and CEO of Genome BC, told Research Money that the provincial funds awarded to his group and MSRHBC will help both organizations develop projects that go “hand-in-hand.” MSHRBC will be able to focus on talent development while Genome BC brings more research and development projects closer to commercialization.

(MSHRBC does not operate commercialization programs.)

Genomics innovation fund becomes permanent

Spothelfer said Genome BC will be able to participate in a highly competitive Genome Canada peer-reviewed co-funding program and expand its own GeneSolve innovation program, which supports academic researchers. He said GeneSolve is allowing Genome BC to build capacity and prepare the provincial research community for larger Genome Canada competitions.

Some of the BC government funding will also be used for a new Genome BC permanent genomics innovation fund, after a pilot project was launched last year, and investment in the group’s data strategy.

“So it’s a pretty full slate,” said Spothelfer. “But what the funding does is, it gives us the planning security for the next little while and [the ability] to go at full speed.”

Spothelfer said a portion of the provincial grant – $27 million – was tied to Genome BC’s past three fiscal years.

“So it's kind of the third year of the previous ask, and then the rest is funding the next two years,” said Spothelfer.

He said Genome BC funds will help commercialize projects involving most of the province’s smaller innovation companies while also providing debt capital to emerging firms.

Terry Pearson, a University of Victoria biochemistry and microbiology professor emeritus, PhD, who now leads Vancouver Island Antibodies, a COVID-19 reagent developer that has grown significantly while capitalizing on federal and international financial injections, said the grants to MSHRBC and Genome BC could give more Canadian companies the confidence to invest in biotech startups.

“Canadians have got a really rich talent,” he said, referring to researchers. “But, for the translation [to commercialization] money, we always have to go to the [United} States."

Noting that large companies tend to “get everything,” Pearson said he would like to see a mechanism whereby the expenditure of the BC government funds is “well-examined.”

But Spothelfer said the provincial funding will improve the chances of translating research into third-party investment and commercialization of technologies. He noted that the purpose of Genome BC’s innovation fund is to “really advance innovation solutions along the technology-readiness-level scale.”

Provincial funding ‘good idea’

Spothelfer and Pearson believe that the Horgan government can achieve its goal of developing a global life sciences and biomanufacturing hub.

Pearspn called the grants to MSHRBC and Genome BC “a good idea.”

“We're at the point now where [BC’s biotech sector] has a critical mass, so the money will be well-used,” he said. “Previously, [government funding of biotech research] was spotty in BC”


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