Experts explore strategies for strengthening Canada’s bioinnovation ecosystem at Medicine by Design event

College and University

Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, which shares close connections to U of T and its hospital partners, is a major Canadian hub for biotechnology innovation in Canada (photo by Makeda Marc-Ali)

What can the unprecedented speed of vaccine development during the COVID-19 pandemic teach us about strengthening our bioinnovation ecosystem?

For David Walt, a professor at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, many of the pandemic’s innovations promise to have a lasting effect since, as a society, we “now have some of the tools in place to help catalyze continued innovation and collaboration” in the field.

“Everyone who was working on [COVID-19] had the potential to be affected by it. It was a global imperative that we all co-operate,” he said during a recent symposium hosted by the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design program.

Walt, who co-leads the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation, made the remarks during a panel discussion titled “Strengthening Our Bioinnovation Ecosystem” that followed his plenary talk.

David R. Walt

The symposium – “A Systems Approach to Regenerative Medicine” – was held over two days and attracted more than 500 registrants. It included talks from invited speakers Ruslan Medzhitov, a professor in the Yale School of Medicine at Yale University, on the topic of inflammation systems biology; and Linda G. Griffith, a professor in the department of biological and medicalengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who spoke about organ-on-chip technologies, including their application to endometriosis.

The panel discussion on strengthening the bioinnovation ecosystem looked at the symposium’s broad theme in a more “holistic fashion,” said Medicine by Design Executive Director Michael Sefton, who is also a University Professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

“[We’re] looking at health-care systems and innovation systems with a focus on health policy and social science lessons learned from COVID-19.” 

The panel discussion was timely as Medicine by Design seeks to ensure the bioinnovation system in Canada is well-prepared to advance the regenerative discoveries coming out of the labs of researchers at U of T and its partner hospitals.

“We are looking forward to continuing to excel and to prepare the future of human health – to continue to transform but also translate,” said Sefton, whose lab is located at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Bimolecular Research, in his opening remarks. “Our goal is to not just write great papers but to also show that these papers can be translated into impact –maybe not immediately, but certainly over the next five or ten years, if not beyond.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the bioinnovation pipeline was just one of themes panelists touched on during a wide-ranging discussion. The panel was moderated by Shiri Breznitz, who is an associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and the director of the master of global affairs program at U of T.

A clinical pull rather than technology push

Often innovations begin with an engineer or scientist inventing a technology and filing a patent before determining the clinical need for their product. But using “design thinking” to innovate can accelerate the timeline of implementation by years, Walt said during his talk.

“If you start with the clinical need first rather than the technology – a clinical pull rather than a technology push – then you come up with a [design-thinking] model.”

In the design-thinking model, clinicians identify unmet needs and then scientists and engineers develop solutions to solve those problems. Design thinking “starts with the problem. It has a human-centred core,” said Walt.

Collaboration and trust are important elements of an ecosystem

Catherine Beaudry

The strength of an ecosystem can be measured by its level of collaboration and trust, said panelist Catherine Beaudry, who leads the Partnership for the Organization of Innovation and New Technologies (4POINTO) and is a professor at Polytechnique Montréal.

“At the heart of all these models, you have to remember that it’s individuals who are collaborating with other individuals. The glue that maintains the ecosystem is trust.”

Beaudry pointed to the importance of having strong intellectual property policies and making sure innovators are collaborating with regulators early in the therapeutics or technology development process as important elements of building trust. She added that using more thoughtful metrics – key performance indicators, or KPIs – is also a key part of measuring the health of an ecosystem.

“Bean counting is not the way to go. We need to measure how organizations collaborate, whether these relationships last over time, and what comes out of them.”

Aligning towards a common goal

Beate Sander

Beate Sander, a scientist and the director of population health economics research for the Toronto Health Economics and Technology Assessment Collaborative (THETA), pointed to how the speed of vaccine development during the pandemic showed us how the seemingly impossible could be possible.

“The pandemic has shown that we cannot separate health and the economy,” said Sander, who is also an associate professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

 “[In the pandemic] everyone is rallying around similar goals. So everything aligned in a time of very high pressure, very high uncertainty. How do we move what we have now to post-pandemic times when all that pressure is gone, and everyone will be inclined to go back to what we’ve done previously?”

Sander is an expert in health technology assessment, a multi-disciplinary process that looks at the value of a technology from a wide range of perspectives – not just technical properties, but also many other factors including economic considerations, social and legal impacts and patient perspectives.

Where normally innovations would move through a linear process of approvals, Sander said things were very different during the pandemic, when many of the phases moved in tandem with each other instead of sequentially. Introducing health technology assessment earlier into the process of innovation would also help speed up the adoption of new technologies, Sander said.

At the pre-clinical stage, Sander said, provinces and territories were already planning vaccine rollouts. Health Canada accepted vaccine data on a rolling basis and data was shared with relevant parties much earlier than it normally would be.

“I hope that some of those characteristics will be maintained – [for instance] parallel review and not having to wait until each step is finished.”

Beaudry said COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of the government playing an active role in the innovation ecosystem.

“We need to de-silo the economy because innovation very often is a combination of knowledge from multiple disciplines and multiple sectors. With COVID the government has been forced to do that really quickly. We need to draw the lessons in terms of cross-sector cross agency collaboration.”

Support for new companies and access to risk capital play a large role

""Michael May

For smaller companies to thrive in the bioinnovation ecosystem, collaboration is an important element, said Michael May, president and chief executive officer at CCRM (formerly the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine).

“It’s about alignment of interests. Bringing groups together and understanding the common goal and focusing on that common goal. And it’s a recognition that multiple partners are required for success,” said May. “It’s amazing how much translation and commercialization get stopped by innovators feeling like they have to do it all on their own.”

Aside from collaborations, May said, financial resources play a large role. May contrasted the Canadian ecosystem with the ecosystem in Boston, which is well known for its biotechnology sector and has more access to capital.

“We get bogged down without the financial resources to bring people together … and we’re trying to fill gaps without those resources. [The CCRM model] was built on the premise that we needed to leverage small successes and infrastructure and investments over time to enable access to capital.”

Walt, who has founded or co-founded several life sciences start-ups including multi-billion dollar biotech ventures Illumina, Inc. and Quanterix Corp., agreed that support for small companies is crucial. 

“The small companies are at the core of innovation,” he said. “That’s where invention happens; that’s where all the creativity starts.”

Walt added that Boston and Canadian hubs like Toronto have many similarities. The biotech ecosystem in Boston started because there was a recognition that there was invention and innovation at the universities.

“[In Canada], there are great hubs where there’s concentrations of universities. That’s where most of these ecosystems start. They start with the intellectual capital, then they attract the venture capital, and then they attract more, and it just becomes a self-fulfilling enterprise.”