Ontario life sciences sector calls for coordinated strategy to boost sector

Veronica Silva
December 20, 2017

Ontario’s key life sciences players are calling for greater coordination to help the sector grow by more effectively exploiting the sector’s untapped potential. Life Sciences Ontario (LSO), an industry group, launched on December 1 a document entitled Blueprint for a Coordinated Life Sciences Strategy, calling for a pan-government strategy to coordinate the different efforts of the provincial government.

LSO president and CEO Jason Field said the blueprint is a culmination of efforts by the sector over the past several years and documents the challenges it faces, and how these relate to the upcoming provincial elections in 2018 when the parties lay out their respective innovation policies.

“The goal of the blueprint was to clearly and concisely present policy options that could form a coordinated life sciences strategy for Ontario, with the goal of building a globally significant, made-in-Ontario biotech success story,” said Field in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY.

Speaking at the launch of the blueprint at LSO’s annual policy forum, Field enumerated the different opportunities that the sector offers the Canadian economy.

The sector employs approximately 83,000 highly skilled workers and generates approximately $40 billion in annual revenues, contributing approximately $38.5 billion to provincial GDP. The blueprint notes that global opportunities are so large that in the US, two life sciences companies alone have a combined market capitalization of US$242 billion, almost as much as the market capitalization of the entire mining sector listed in the TSX at US$244 billion for 1,200 companies.

Yet, Field also noted that the sector is complex and diverse as it cuts across many segments of the government, encompassing healthcare, agriculture and environment, and in the provincial government these areas are handled by different ministers.

Another challenge is access to financial resources. “The government view is the sector is high cost with low ROI,” Field said. “Existing programs are resource-limited,” and funding programs don’t adequately match needs, he added. He cited the case of the Ontario Jobs and Prosperity Fund which allots 90% to two sectors: IT and automotive.

The LSO strategy calls for a cross-ministry promotion of life sciences with dedicated annual funding and expansion of access to capital. The blueprint also offers strategies to grow talent by attracting and retaining senior management that can help scale Ontario companies, and ensuring that the science graduates are “market ready.”

Finally, the blueprint calls for support for research and innovation in the sector through:

  • intellectual property protection;
  • urging the government to be first adopters of innovation;
  • implementing regulation through efficient policies;
  • funding accelerators;
  • evaluating procurement decisions based on value;
  • establishing stronger links to Canadian Trade Commissioner services to help Ontario companies export their innovation;
  • applying key learnings in government programs; and,
  • establishing shared health data repositories to allow collaboration among innovators.

Policy and programs

Speaking at the policy forum, Ontario officials said the life sciences sector is a priority in the province’s economic development and research agenda. However, the Ontario government is also faced with challenges of its own.

Greg Wootton, ADM, Research, Science and Strategy Division of the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth, and Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, said: “It is a priority sector. We have put a lot of time, effort, money into the life sciences sector, particularly research into fundamental science and commercialization.”

He also debunked the notion that the sector is underrepresented in the province’s economic development programs.

“I can assure you that that is not by design. We actually try to ensure that there are opportunities for life sciences in the economic development program,” Wootton said. “But we had a long standing challenge of seeing the opportunities come forward.”

He cited programs that were rolled into other programs because he said there was no uptake. But he remains hopeful that more life sciences companies will take advantage of the opportunities in the next few years.

“In fact, I see greater take-up among companies in the life sciences in those programs, such as the Jobs and Prosperity Fund,” he added. The fund is available to help companies become more productive and globally competitive.

For some projects, however, Wootton said they are difficult to classify if they fall under life sciences because there are some components in the projects that involve other sciences. An example he cited is a project on better packaging of spinach along an assembly line using sensor technology to determine the chemical signature of the vegetable to improve its shelf life. The government-funded project involves many disciplines of sciences -- agriculture, biology, chemistry, physical science, data science and sensor technology.

John Marshall, ADM of the commercialization and scale-ups division of the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, said the province has made some foundational investments in the sector, but it is only recently that some of these investments have generated ROI. “Whenever there’s a great science, and there’s a market and a user, it’s all on the upside,” he said, adding that there is now a large and growing market for life sciences.

But Wootton said with recent developments in science, there is no need to wait for years to see success stories in the sector. He added that government’s challenge is to ensure that the province gets a fair share of the talent, technology and intellectual property acknowledging that some of these success stories may not stay in Ontario for good. He was alluding to the fact that some successful Ontario companies are often acquired by bigger foreign entities.

Field also noted that the opportunity for the sector to be global leaders is now, but members of the sector need to rally behind the blueprint.

“We need to align around this common vision, and we need to execute at all levels. It’s not just the government … it’s the private sector as well,” Field said.

LSO said the endorsements of the blueprint came from leading provincial and national partner organizations, such as Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, BIOTECanada, Chemical Institute of Canada, Innovative Medicines Canada, MEDEC, Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and TO Health.

“This really shows that it can be done -- that we can collaborate, work together and align behind a common vision. All of these organizations have shared and lived that value of collaboration … This makes this document a strong document, a compelling document because of their support and endorsement,” said Field.

He said LSO has distributed the document to stakeholders in the sector – industry and key policymakers. “Our goal is to have this document reflected in the innovation policies presented by all parties heading into the provincial election this coming June. Post-election, we will continue to update this blueprint and work with government officials to promote and implement the recommendations,” he said.


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