Canada has lagged behind its peer nations in innovation for decades. Currently, Canada is ranked 11th out of the 16 similarly developed countries assessed. While our “C” grade is a moderate improvement over our previous “D” grade, innovation still remains a barrier to high-quality job creation and economic prosperity in Canada.
It’s not that Canadians aren’t creative and inventive — Canadian science was able to rapidly deliver the medical technology needed to provide the first FDA-approved COVID-19 treatment and enabled the most effective COVID-19 vaccines. The problem is that Canada doesn’t convert enough inventions into patents, products and science-based ventures.
While Canada’s COVID-19 breakthroughs are a feat worthy of celebration, other innovative breakthroughs still remain underdeveloped, languishing away in research labs. In innovation circles, this purgatory of untapped science innovation is commonly referred to as the “valley of death.”
University scientists are key innovators
Innovation in lipid nanoparticle drug delivery — a key component of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — was led by Canadian scientist and entrepreneur Pieter Cullis, a professor who reduced his tenured appointment to half-time decades ago to take on a leadership role in his co-founded ventures and innovation initiatives.
Thanks to Cullis, the potential of lipid nanoparticles was unlocked and commercialized over several years with partners and founders from both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
One of his ventures, Acuitas, manufactures the lipid nanoparticle technology used in the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. Without these earlier commercialization efforts, the novel COVID-19 vaccine would not have been developed. Similarly, the first FDA-produced treatment for COVID-19 was developed in the lab of then University of British Columbia professor and AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen.
Hansen is a key example of a university scholar who demonstrated entrepreneurial capabilities while still in the research lab, as well as later within the new science-based venture. Without Hansen and his lab researchers’ entrepreneurship, much social and economic benefit would have been lost.
Given that we heavily rely on entrepreneurial scientists to initiate breakthrough invention, and that science-based spinoffs have been a crucial component of global responses to crises, it is surprising how little is done to support the development of entrepreneurial capabilities in scientists or their science-based ventures.
The role of university spinoffs
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, the rapid development and commercialization of highly efficacious vaccines and treatments was unprecedented, and university spinoff ventures played a critical role in their success.
Companies founded by professors or spun out of university research labs include Genentech, Genzyme, BioNTech and Google. These companies impact their regions and countries by providing high-skilled and high-paying jobs. They export products and services globally. Even when small, such ventures also serve as a bridge between university research labs and established industry.
In Canada, university spinoff companies include MacDonald-Dettwiler, STEMCELL Technologies, Carbon Engineering and the previously mentioned AbCellera and Acuitas. These companies also provide high-quality and high-paying jobs, help solve pressing global scientific challenges — like the pandemic — and contribute to the regional and national economy.
The most novel, highly efficacious and rapidly developed vaccines — both incorporating mRNA and delivered by lipid nanoparticles — were driven by BioNTech, Moderna and Acuitis, working in partnership with the large pharmaceutical firm Pfizer.
Critically, no mRNA product had ever been developed and approved anywhere in the world before the COVID-19 vaccine was developed. This kind of breakthrough invention rarely originates in large incumbent firms, but rather in science-based university spinoff ventures.
The current Canadian innovation ecosystem does a good job supporting innovations that can reach market success in three to five years, like software. But it is not conducive for slower-developing innovations like vaccine development or biomedical treatments. Canada needs to support the slower, more complex ones because having a development pipeline enables us to rapidly respond to global crises and emerging needs.
Currently, the biggest gap in science innovation support occurs when the researcher is still in the lab developing their invention. Scientist researchers are being asked to swim upstream for too long, instead of being given the support they need. Thus too many potentially impactful ventures are never founded, and too many breakthrough inventions remain within university walls rather than out in the world.
Founding and growing an impactful science-based company takes persistence, determination, skill — and some luck — and more scientists will embark on the innovation journey if they have a better chance of a positive outcome.
A new innovation strategy
The key to better supporting science innovation is funding and shaping it at its earliest stages, while innovative ventures are still housed within universities — and even before the ventures are founded.
Known as a build-for-scale strategy, this approach would involve more flexible funding, skills training, stipends for post-doctoral fellows, intellectual property protection, incubation and acceleration services, enhanced access to prototyping, scale-up, and living lab facilities and government investment.
If we train scientists to have an entrepreneurial mindset while still in the research lab, their innovation decisions will give subsequent spinoff ventures a far better chance of success. These nascent science-based ventures can then be scaled by existing university accelerators, by a continuum of science entrepreneurship programming and by investor-focused mentoring and venture building programs.
If Canada truly wants establish itself as a leading country in innovation, it will have to purposefully support scientist-entrepreneurs as they seek to translate their research into impactful innovation.
Canada’s newly announced innovation agency could play an important role in enabling universities and scientist-entrepreneurs to be more successful in bridging the “valley of death” with breakthrough science innovation.
Investing in build-for-scale supports will strengthen the Canadian economy by creating good jobs and knowledge-intensive export companies, and benefit our health, the environment and society as a whole. Such “high quality” university spinoff ventures will also be key to responding to — or helping prevent — future global crises.