Biotechnology and engineering biology roadmap plus investment are key to Canada’s economic recovery

Guest Contributor
January 20, 2021

Biology is the most sophisticated “machinery” on the planet, having optimized its performance over billions of years. Advances in biotechnology and engineering biology now enable us to use biology to engineer useful products from sustainable inputs, like waste, through biomanufacturing. In recent years, biomanufacturing has seen an incredible surge in venture capital investment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased momentum in engineering biology’s potential to transform traditional economies and revolutionize the way we manufacture technologies and goods. Some jurisdictions, notably the U.S., U.K., Australia, China and Singapore, have already made considerable investments to develop and accelerate their engineering biology prowess to meet growing global demands for environmentally friendly products.

The National Engineering Biology Steering Committee has this exact vision for Canada, which to date has lagged in investment. Our recently published white paper calls on the federal government to support an inclusive engineering biology ecosystem that leverages Canadian-grown capacities across industry, academia and government. Canada needs a comprehensive and aligned roadmap for a public-private partnership and investment strategy to keep up with, and even considerably benefit from, the increasing opportunities presented by this emerging sector.

In what is being called a “bio-revolution,” the McKinsey Global Institute has predicted that the bioeconomy is set to generate US$2 trillion to $4 trillion in global value between 2030 and 2040.

However, as it stands, Canada appears to be fashionably late, despite a phenomenal reputation and leadership in fundamental sciences, world-class talent and ability to scale up relevant infrastructure, immense biomass availability and robust start-up culture. Compared to jurisdictions leading in this sector, we are missing a national, demand-driven strategy to connect these pieces and compete on the global stage.

The U.S. government, for example, has made unprecedented investments into biotechnology, including into “Operation Warp Speed” and for strategic military initiatives.

Operation Warp Speed is speeding up development, scale-up and regulatory approvals of novel vaccines through engineering biology. These advances are anchored in the U.S.’s long-term investment into research and innovation at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

In September 2020, the Department of Defense (DOD) Defense Science Board Biology Task Force issued a series of recommendations that included leveraging applied genomics for optimized tools and talent management, performance and health, and future commercial advances in tissue and organ biomanufacturing. The task force also called on the DOD to designate biotechnology as a modernization priority and established senior positions to support this.

A month later, the DOD announced a US$87 million, seven-year award to the BioIndustrial Manufacturing and Ecosystem (BioMADE), a non-profit created by the Engineering Biology Research Consortium, for a new Bioindustrial Manufacturing Innovation Institute. This public-private collaboration is intended to advance sustainable and reliable bioindustrial manufacturing technologies in a collaborative and distributed fashion.

BioMADE, and investment into engineering biology at large, promises not only to keep the U.S. competitive but also provides novel opportunities to transform rural economies with the creation of a “bio-belt,” expanding biomanufacturing and biotechnologies in regions that are often starved of innovation opportunity. Canadian rural and northern regions also stand to benefit from such innovative technologies that thrive locally on ample land and feedstock.

In the U.K., a synthetic biology (another term for engineering biology) roadmap has been guiding a steady and impressive climb in private sector investment. Through this roadmap the Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub, SynbiCITE and other centres across the U.K., have spurred £1 billion private investment from just £300 million in public funds.

As outlined in our white paper, Canada has huge potential to follow suit in health applications, food security and waste upcycling. By focusing on a technology platform, Canada can create and grow both start-up companies and help large resource-based industry players innovate. One example of recent made-in-Canada engineering biology success is the collaboration between Vancouver-based AbCellera Biologics and Eli Lilly to co-develop a COVID-19 therapy using this Canadian company’s advanced antibody therapy discovery platform.

However, a notable difference in Canada’s investment model, compared to that of the jurisdictions leading in biotech, is the leaders' capacity to invest in platform technologies that are not confined to specific sectors. Engineering biology does not operate in a vacuum. It does not compete with other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence; instead, as a truly transdisciplinary approach it requires the convergence with other disciplines and presents complementary tools that capitalize on multiple technologies’ capacities.

Engineering biology technologies allow us to create a fully integrated and circular economy wherein manufacturing, agri-food and health use a shared technology platform to solve Canadian and global challenges in environmentally and economically sustainable ways.

To accelerate Canadian engineering biology opportunities, the National Engineering Biology Steering Committee has developed a vision for a competitive and innovative biomanufacturing future. With all the right ingredients to advance this, Canada urgently needs a collaborative and nation-wide roadmap, with national leadership and funding support that catalyzes industry investment, to drive this forward and be globally competitive.


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