How to ensure Canada’s health sector remains an engine of economic prosperity

Healthcare is 10% of our economy. We need to build on this momentum with policies that drive innovation and entrepreneurship

Karimah Es Sabar is chair of the Health and Biosciences Economic Strategy Table, a member of the Industry Strategy Council and chief executive officer and partner at Quark Venture LP.

If all goes well, 2021 will be a year of recovery for people, organizations and countries worldwide.

As the COVID-19 vaccines continue 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, the Industry Strategy Council (ISC; established by the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development) recently released its Restart, Recover, Reimagine action plan. It’s an ambitious and transformative approach, leveraging this crisis to help Canada build a sustainable digital and innovative economy across all key sectors.

The ISC’s report says an ambitious 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 protect Canadians' health and safety. Given the right enablers, it acknowledges the importance of the sector to foster research, product development and innovation to strengthen Canada’s economy and healthcare system for the long-term.

To get there, Canada will need to modernize and optimize our regulatory systems to better champion innovation and attract investment to scale up and anchor high-potential firms, prioritize strategic value-based procurement to accelerate innovation adoption, and mobilize 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 in building up Canada’s health and biosciences sector. These investments are helping to 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 ISC recommends two broad areas of focus to empower the sector:
Get governments working better, together

The pandemic highlighted noticeable gaps in mobilizing our intellectual capital to develop innovative products 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. Federal, provincial and territorial governments need to work together to adopt value-based procurement across the country’s health systems.

Also, the regulatory approval processes among various levels of governments must be streamlined to improve cooperation between academic labs, health authorities and industry; facilitate a speedier introduction of much-needed innovations into the domestic market; and, in general, create a stronger competitive business environment.

Create a stronger investment climate and a stoic ecosystem

Canada needs targeted investments across the sector, including for building digital infrastructure to support a homegrown digital health strategy and enable data-driven advances in healthcare (e.g., telehealth services for 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. Establishing renewed public-private partnerships and investments as well as industry collaborations with the global biopharma industry is vital. This can help address potential shortages in diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments against future pandemics such as COVID-19.

Across Canada, 33% of biotechnology and life-sciences employers report skills shortages, and 20% have job vacancies in their companies. Canada needs to do more to attract, develop and retain skilled talent in the sector by ensuring that Canadians are equipped for these highly skilled jobs. Streamlining government skills programs to benefit youth entering the workplace as well as advanced career executives will be key.

Canada’s response to COVID-19 showcased the strength of our health and biosciences sector –as well as its weaknesses. Proven capabilities in science, discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship – alongside our highly skilled and diverse talent – position us to mobilize the sector into an innovation-driven economic engine.

The Canadian health and bioscience brand needs to be celebrated and promoted to Canadians and the global marketplace. We should no longer accept being an off-balance-sheet pipeline of talent and innovation, generating economic benefit for other jurisdictions.

Healthcare is 10% of our economy, so we need to double down and 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.

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