I attended an interesting event recently, with the ponderous title ‘Stopping the Exodus: Keeping Biotech in Canada’. It was sponsored by the Oxbridge Biotechnology Roundtable (OBR ), an organization with a mission to bring academic researchers and industry folks in the biomedical disciplines together.
My interest was peaked. I live at the interface between academia and industry and have since I realized 20 years ago that biomedical research scientists (which I was) needed the biotech industry, as industry needs the academics. This realization sent me on a path from investment banking, to a health charity, to technology transfer, interspersed with forays back and forth into academia proper. So the topic made me nostalgic. But it’s also very timely, since I’ve recently become better acquainted with what is happening in the Toronto entrepreneurship area and want to understand the emphasis on medical devices and informatics, over therapeutics.
Medical devices and informatics have the potential to provide many great new products that improve the lives of those suffering from health problems, or to prevent suffering, and save money in our stressed healthcare system. But what of new therapeutics? I may be biased, since this was the area I worked in a for a couple of decades, but we need new therapies to treat the diseases and conditions once we have benefitted from advanced diagnosis and efficiencies in the system.
The panel at the OBR event was impressive: four articulate individuals, representing most of the major players in the area. From the Ontario government, Bill Mantel. From the only biotech focused venture capital firm in Canada, Evelyn Pau. An entrepreneurial academic, Aled Edwards, and an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, Connor Dickie. I might have added someone representing technology transfer or economic development or a similar role – those who facilitate interaction between academia and industry – but perhaps there is a clear message in the absence of such a person.
The audience, a sizeable crowd, was attentive and energetic.
There were many great concepts and initiatives discussed – all related to supporting a thriving biotech industry. The theme that emerged from the discussion, at least from my perspective, was disconnection. The elements, the players, the supporters, and the stages of development, in the research-biotech continuum, need to be better tied together. As some of the panelists point out, communication needs to improve. More media attention could be focused on our biomedical endeavours, whether they derive from the academic or industry setting. Funny, what pops into my mind is my post-doctoral fellowship. I joined one of the groups at Sick Kids that collaborated on the cloning of the cystic fibrosis gene, right after the gene was cloned. We had television crews constantly traipsing through the lab, filming us pipetting something, for the first year I was there. Then interest trailed off, and eventually, headlines to the effect of ‘Ten years after the cloning of the CF gene – no cure yet’ appeared. Not a surprise to anyone who understands the process of biomedical research but undoubtedly disappointing to many who hoped for more difference in the lives of those suffering with the disease. A disconnection.
I admired each of the panelists. They were all very positive and optimistic about their areas.
The Ontario government has revised their strategy recently to put an emphasis on entrepreneurship and investing with industry.
The VC reported an upsurge in investments and IPOs of emerging biotech companies.
The entrepreneurs enthused about advances in technology that will allow acceleration of medical discovery and new business models that make it simple for technologies to be brought to the public. Dickie and Edwards are models of success, fabulous examples that it can be done, whether the entrepreneurial venture comes directly from academic research or inspired individuals. They made it look easy.
So, there are success stories, plenty of funding, government support – optimism. Why then the dire title – ‘Stopping the Exodus’ – like there’s a problem? A disconnect.
I think I understand, and my assessment of the disconnection was echoed in questions from the audience. Rock stars. Risk-taking, driven entrepreneurs, slick, confidence-oozing venture capitalists and well-spoken government officials. They are like rock stars. Not everyone wants to be a rock star, or an entrepreneur. Not everyone wants to be the CEO, travel constantly, or take big risks. I think it still seems too hard for most academics to reach out and extend their careers into the domain of the start-up company. Programs and financiers support those entrepreneurs that take the steps to seek them out. Perhaps there is some characteristic common in academics in the biomedical field that makes them more hesitant than their engineering/computer science colleagues to seek that help.
What this suggests to me is that more connections need to be made to familiarize all the stakeholders in the biotech arena with each other. We all say we understand each other, but I’m not convinced there is a real, hands-dirty, up-to-the-elbows, knowledge of what drives academics, industry folks, venture capitalists or government administrators by those in the other groups. My education across areas began when I was hired from the lab by an investment bank to analyze opportunities in new biotechnology ventures. Much like the consultancy program of the OBR, this provided exposure for an academic to real industry and investor issues and vice versa.
I’m optimistic. There is dialogue, like the session sponsored by the Oxbridge Biotechnology Roundtable. There is interest – I was impressed by the number of people at this event. The players are engaged – government players continue to create new programs, investors are investing. With efforts such as the OBR, more connections can be made. Connections I think could best be made from the most junior scientist to senior administrators/executives.