The country’s biotechnology sector is thriving, but there’s room to cultivate more talent, more skills and more entrepreneurial opportunities. Industry West caught up with BioTalent Canada President and CEO Rob Henderson to talk about biotechnology in Canada and how institutions, government and industry can do more to help the sector flourish even more.
Overall, Canada’s bio-economy is doing well. Our bio-economy is made up of four sub-sectors—bio-health, bio-energy, bio-industrial and agri-biotech—and according to Henderson, the country definitely ‘punches about its weight.’ “We’re fortunate to live in the world’s best laboratory,” says Henderson. “Canada has forests, fresh water, wildlife, agriculture, minerals, oil and gas—the list goes on. This natural playground provides us with so much opportunity for biotechnology.” Not only does Canada have a wealth of access to nature, it’s also home to one of the world’s best education systems. “Our post-secondary sector is strong, and we’re known for the quality of education and research done here,” he says. These two components are the foundation for our biotechnology sector, and much of the reason we’re standing tall on the world stage.
Going to Market
However, Canada does have one issue—the path to commercialization. While we’re seeing the building of incubators and accelerators to take the research to market, Canada is behind many other places in terms of entrepreneurial growth in biotechnology. “We fall short in commercialization,” says Henderson. “This is due to two main issues: access to capital, and access to talent. The two are linked together and often, it’s the talent issue that holds back the capital.”
There are a few things in the talent area that need to be addressed to take the biotechnology sector to the next level. First, Masters and PhD students require more exposure to entrepreneurship. These bright, skilled people need to learn some business skills, or be in contact with entrepreneurs that can take the reins of the business side of things. “Our post-secondary institutions are great at teaching theory, but science students don’t always have a way to learn business development,” says Henderson. “In the U.S., for example, graduates have more access to the entrepreneurial skills and connections they need to get to commercialization.” He also notes that Canada’s colleges are very good at connecting their programs to job training rather than just on academics.
The sector also needs to build more bridges between researchers and industry. “Again, the U.S. post-secondary system is very well linked to the industries that will employ graduates or invest in research ready for the marketplace,” says Henderson. “Canada needs to close the entrepreneurial gap to grow the industry leaders of tomorrow.”
Finally, and likely due to the lack of entrepreneurial connections, the biotechnology sector has an executive leadership deficit. “The country needs to grow more senior leaders that can take the innovations built here to market,” says Henderson. “By connecting graduates to entrepreneurship sooner, we can move research from the lab to industry much faster.”
So, how does Canada harness the talent and grab these opportunities? There are solutions being developed now, but there is always room for more—much more. “First, government and industry need to better understand the talent needs of the sector, and how there needs to be a straight path from research to commercialization,” says Henderson. “There’s a misalignment that exists and we need to build a network where the people with the skills are connected with the companies that need them.” Universities also need to do their part, and place importance on industry needs as well as academics and publishing.
Lastly, and certainly not least, people in the sector need to build their skills beyond the lab. BioTalent Canada is working on this now, with plans to launch online courses to fill the gap. “We brought together university deans and industry heads to develop courses to address skills that need to be developed,” says Henderson. “These courses will cover topics like numeracy, communications, document management, quality assurance and manufacturing practices—and all are designed with an eye on commercialization.”
Canada’s biotechnology sector—that has already has a strong, world-class presence in Saskatchewan—is an important part of our economy. With even more strategic skills management and investment from institutions, government and industry, the country’s biotechnology talent can embrace the entrepreneurial opportunities that are right there for the taking.