Canada's growing health and biosciences sector – an engine for post-pandemic economic prosperity

  • National Newswatch

If all goes well, 2021 will be a year of recovery for people, organizations and countries worldwide.As the COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out, there is a growing confidence life will return to 'normal' — albeit with renewed priorities and thinking around health and economic prosperity.With this revised view of society's values and goals, the Industry Strategy Council (established by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) recently released its 'Restart, Recover, Reimagine' action plan. It is an ambitious and transformative approach, leveraging this crisis to help Canada build a sustainable digital and innovative economy across all key sectors.A transformative industrial strategy for Canada should include four main pillars: 1) Become a digital and data-driven economy; 2) Be the environmental, social and governance (ESG) world leader in resources, clean energy and clean technology; 3) Build innovative and high-value manufacturing where Canada can lead globally, and; 4) Leverage our agri-food advantage to feed the planet.The plan identifies the health and related biosciences sector as one of the key areas of investment to help reignite the economy — and to protect Canadians' health and safety. Given the right enablers, it acknowledges the importance of the sector to foster research, development and innovation to strengthen Canada's economy and health care system for the long term.A favourable climate for the sector includes modernizing and optimizing our regulatory systems to better promote and champion innovation; attracting investment to scale up and anchor high potential firms; strategic value-based procurement to accelerate innovation adoption; and mobilizing high quality talent and upskilling.Thankfully, Canada is already at a significant advantage, given our highly skilled workforce and world-class research facilities. The health and biosciences sector is one of the fastest-growing industries in Canada's economy, accounting for 1.8% of GDP and 3% of employment. Investments in the sector reached $1.6 billion in the first half of 2020, bringing the sector closer to its goal of doubling its annual equity capital size from $1 billion to $2 billion by 2025.The recent funding growth demonstrates the active role governments and private investors are playing to build up Canada's health and biosciences sector. These investments help achieve advancements in areas such as big data, drug development, AI, gene and cell therapies, regenerative medicine, 3D printing, precision medicine and vaccines.Still, there is a lot more work to be done. The Industry Strategy Council recommends two broad areas of focus to help empower the sector:Get governments working better, togetherThe pandemic highlighted noticeable gaps and the need to improve procurement and regulatory agility to secure access to essential diagnostics, devices and drugs. Canada needs to adjust its health procurement and sourcing strategies to ensure the resilience of domestic capabilities in line with strategic focus areas. Federal, provincial and territorial governments need to work together to adopt value-based procurement across the country's health systems.Also, streamlining the regulatory approval processes among various levels of governments to improve cooperation between academic labs, health authorities and industry, support access to value-based innovations into the domestic market and, in general, create a stronger competitive business environment.Create a stronger investment climate and a stoic ecosystemCanada needs targeted investments across the sector, including for building world-leading digital infrastructure to support a homegrown digital health strategy and enable data-driven advances in healthcare (e.g., tele-health services to rural and indigenous communities, and the elderly).Focused investment in advanced high-value biomanufacturing will yield a substantial multiplier effect throughout the economy.Governments need to do more to promote domestic and international private sector investment in Canada's biotech and medical technology firms, including the development of later-stage venture and private equity capital funds. Establish renewed public private partnerships and investments – industry collaborations with global biopharma industry are vital.Clinical trial networks in Canada should be further strengthened to stimulate research coordination and attract new multinational corporation funding.We need to attract, develop and retain skilled talent in the sector. This is particularly needed when across Canada 33% of biotechnology and life sciences employers report skills shortages, and 20% have job vacancies in their companies. Canadians should be equipped for these highly skilled jobs, eliminating hiring barriers and streamlining government skills programs to benefit youth entering the workplace as well as for advanced career executives.The Canadian health and bioscience brand needs to be celebrated and promoted to Canadians as well as the global marketplace. We should no longer accept to be an off-balance sheet pipeline of talent and innovation, generating economic benefit for other jurisdictions.The future of health care in CanadaCanada's response to COVID-19 showcased the strength of our health and biosciences sector. Proven capabilities in science, discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship — alongside our highly skilled and diverse talent — well-position us to mobilize the sector into an innovation-driven economic engine.Healthcare is 10% of our economy so we need to double down, build on this momentum by implementing policies that will drive innovation, entrepreneurship, scaling up and anchoring of great bioscience companies here. With commitment and bold action Canada can grow its health and biosciences firms to support a more sustainable health system while advancing Canada's prosperity.Karimah Es Sabar is Chair of the Health and Biosciences Economic Strategy Table, Member of the Industry Strategy Council and Chief Executive Officer & Partner at Quark Venture LP