S03 E08

The Future of Life Sci Innovation in Canada

Sheryl Groeneweg

Director General

Manufacturing and Life Sciences Branch of

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

In the eighth and final episode of our third season, Peter Brenders, CEO of the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, talks with Sheryl Groeneweg, Director General of the Manufacturing and Life Sciences Branch of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, about the future of bio-manufacturing, the convergence of technologies in the life sciences industry and the effect of Covid-19 on innovation in the industry.

LIONA DROIDWORTHY (LD):

 

From the National Pharmaceutical Congress, this is the NPC Podcast for March 24 2021. Each week, we're here to discuss and consider the purpose, process and people of the pharma industry during the Age of Covid. Today, let's continue the healthcare conversation by answering questions from listeners like you. 

 

The NPC Podcast is presented in cooperation with Impres. Impres' best in class commercial solutions offer top line and bottom line growth with maximum sales force, flexibility, speed and efficiency. Learn more about their next generation commercial model at www.impres.com

 

On today's podcast, our guest is Sheryl Groeneweg, Director General at Innovation, Science and Economic Development in the nation's capitol. Your host is Peter Brenders but first, here's Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies.

 

MITCH SHANNON (MS):

Thanks Liona. Here we are at episode eight, the last of our winter season of podcasts.

 

LD:

 

I know. The past eight episodes seem to just fly by.

 

MS:

 

And next month we begin season number four.

 

LD:

 

Well, let's make the next season the best yet.

 

MS:

 

You got it. 

 

The federal agency Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, ISED to its friends, was established in 1993. Its mission is to improve conditions for investment and support science. It's a big undertaking with more than 5000 employees. Leading the effort for Manufacturing and Life Sciences is Sheryl Groeneweg. And here she is in conversation with Peter. 

 

PETER BRENDERS (PB):

 

Welcome to the NPC Podcast. I'm Peter Brenders, your host. In our continuing look at the purpose, process and people in pharma in Canada. This episode touches on the world of government and its role in life sciences in Canada. Joining us from Ottawa today we're delighted to have Sheryl Groeneweg, Director General of the Manufacturing and Life Sciences branch of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Welcome to the NPC podcast, Sheryl.

 

SHERYL GROENEWEG (SG):

 

Thank you, Peter. It's a pleasure to be here. I appreciate the invitation.

 

PB:

 

Well, let's start with a congratulations, Sheryl. You've got the longest title of any podcast guest in our three seasons. But all joking aside, I'd like to start there though. Perhaps you can help our listeners understand just what the Manufacturing and Life Sciences branch of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada is?

 

SG:

 

Well, sure, that's quite something to be known for in the history of your podcast. Long last name, long titles. 

 

I'm responsible for the sectoral policy orientation that comes from a range of different industry groups. So I do cover Life Sciences, as it says in my title, but also major manufacturing industries, the chemical industry, consumer products, dabble a bit in oceans policy, and some energy related files as well. So the list is a bit longer than that, but sorry, I should say that I have been preoccupied with steel and aluminum for the past four years, for reasons I don't think I really need to go into. That's kind of the scope.

 

PB:

 

Okay, wow, I mean, so your job is way, way broader than just manufacturing in life sciences. So your branch touches many of Canada's key industries. I mean, aluminium and steel, kind of makes me chuckle. But let's focus on life sciences, if we may. 

 

So, first, what's new in life sciences for you guys?

 

SG:

 

Well, of course, what's new is the thing that everybody is dealing with and talking about is Covid, and the response for Covid. But life sciences, much broader than how we're dealing with the pandemic. And indeed, the foundational and transformational dimensions of life sciences have really helped the world respond. 

 

So new things featured in the industry include things like an orientation now towards personalized or precision medicine, platform technologies that have been transformational. One good example of that would be in Covid, RNA based vaccines were pre-Covid, considered, you know, a bridge too far, perhaps almost that impossible dream, but we see that's come to fruition. And that will be a massive shift in the industry in terms of drug development and treatment development. 

 

Of course, we see new entrants in the field as well. So IT-based industries are coming in and gathering health information from people who wear different types of technology to gather data. And that's quite a disruptive change in the sector as well. So I mean, I can go on, this is quite a dynamic industry, but perhaps that's just enough of a taste.

 

PB:

 

Well let's come back to that. So, because I'm thinking about it from Canada's perspective, and some have said that our life sciences industry here in Canada may have been neglected by the government for decades or perhaps said more politely, that Canada has missed an opportunity. Are we as a country out of the game?

 

SG:

 

That's a very good question. I would say that's perhaps an oversimplification of the dynamics behind the scenes, both in industry and government related to Covid. 

 

No, we're not out of the game. We're certainly very much in the game. I can rhyme off several industry players who have really accelerated what they're doing to solve for some serious issues that we needed gaps filled.

 

So a good example would be a Vancouver company called AbCellera, I think I remember visiting one of their locations in Vancouver, which they've since grown out of, I think, three times about three years ago. And that's a really cool company. They use robotics and AI to automate drug discovery. And they have partnered with Eli Lilly, and have come up with an extremely effective monoclonal antibody called Bamlanivimab, that is being used around the world. So that's a great example. 

 

I would say, point to another company in Quebec City called Medicago that we've been talking to for years, developing a fundamentally new way to manufacture, develop and manufacture vaccines using plant based technology versus egg based technology. And they're in clinical trials, phase three right now. And that that's a Canadian footprint of note. 

 

And then of course, we have, there's a company in Vancouver called Vanrx. And that is a Canadian owned machinery and equipment manufacturer of modular fill and finished machines. And indeed, these machines are located around the world, companies that are now commonplace in terms of people's knowledge, companies like Moderna, for example, already had a Vanrx machine before Covid started. So extremely well sought after, we have features in our Canadian landscape, and companies who are very much in the frontline of the Covid response.

 

PB:

 

You're listening to Sheryl Groeneweg, Director General at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. 

 

Okay, so we are in the game. So now I've read the recent white paper that the government put out and is consulting on in terms of bio-manufacturing. So, how do you think this can be part of our future in the country?

 

SG:

 

The white paper was in response to work that we started, well predated Covid for sure, and just accelerated during Covid, in terms of how to have a growth oriented Life Sciences sector and in a way that considers what industrial levers can best be deployed to facilitate that. So I would say that white papers and consultations that have been ongoing recently are a way in which we in the public service and those who are in the government can have a much more in depth understanding of what the current considerations of the range of Life Sciences actors are, and have that inform what policy directions could be taken by government. 

 

And of course, those lists as many different dynamic, interrelated considerations. And so I think it's up to the government now to think about what needs to be put in place to actually propel Canada into the new era of life sciences, here domestically.

 

PB:

 

So you're getting really sort of a deeper dive in terms of what our capacity is, and what we can be where our gaps where our strengths might be, for example. So how does that translate into maybe you can give me a little insight in terms of what your confidence is then on Canada being better prepared for say the next pandemic that everyone says might be coming?

 

SG:

 

That's right. So Canada is, I think the approach is, you know, never again. Long term thinking, long term considerations. And we can certainly, you know, build on some of the actions that have been taken since Covid started. We've made a number of investments, or I should say the government's made a number of investments in a whole range of factors across the country. And these are, I think, you know, a good start. And the way forward is to ensure that there's a systematic, across the board thinking through and putting in place measures that will really have us in a fundamentally different place. And I'm quite confident that that will be the case, although, of course, I don't want to get ahead of politicians. But certainly, the analytical work and the reaching out to the players in the field, has greatly informed any advice that we would give on this matter.

 

PB:

 

That's encouraging to hear. I think out of that one to see that as a country we're sort of getting ourselves ready and going to be stronger and better in the future. Hopefully. Fingers crossed, no commitments. 

 

I want to come back to an answer you gave a little bit earlier, when you're telling me the sort of the breadth of life sciences that are out there and the things that you're seeing, and I think you're kind of in a cool position with that broad perspective across the industries even. I'm wondering are you starting to see a convergence? I mean, are there technologies, you mentioned a little bit about robotics but, that are going to come together to help build our life sciences industry? Like where's our technology going?

 

SG:

 

I mean, that's great and super exciting, you know, in terms of a question, and I like answering questions like this, because it shows a dynamism that is actually happening here on our own Canadian soil, as well as what's happening internationally and how we're connected to that. 

 

So features include, for sure robotics, artificial intelligence, where Canada has a recognized global place as a leader. Those things including how data is gathered, and used are fundamentally changing how, for instance, drug discovery happens, how medical devices are used, and information is gathered from that. 

 

The convergence, of course, as well comes from how organizations build and make things as well. So one wouldn't build manufacturing technology of technology from 10 years ago, it would be built with cutting edge, new technology that includes, you know, advanced manufacturing principles and consideration. So it's a very exciting time, notwithstanding how difficult it is during Covid, I would say over the past, I don't know five or six years, there's a dynamic period that we've been involved in and I see will only prove to become more exciting and more interesting as we move along the the line towards precision medicine or personal medicine.

 

PB:

 

You're listening to the NPC Podcast, I'm Peter Brenders your host. 

 

It's interesting, you close with that personal medicine, that precision medicine reminds me of conversation, we had an earlier episode with Dr. Bettina Hamelin of Ontario Genomics. And she was talking about sort of the opportunities of genomics across many different sectors as well. And you see those possibilities. 

 

If you think about that, I mean, how can you see Canada get ready for this? I mean, more importantly maybe, what are the challenges we might have in our system to deal with things like personalized medicine?

 

SG:

 

Well, that's true. There are challenges. Canada has actually been preparing for this for some time, of course, we've got Genome Canada and other provincial based genome organizations. There are private sector players here who are pushing the technology edge, of course, in terms of sequencing, so whereas when we originally sequenced the human genome, it was rather a small fortune or large fortune, perhaps is better described to to do that work. And now it's, you know, pennies to the dollar, relatively speaking. 

 

So I recall, only within the past couple of weeks, I spoke to somebody from the Canadian Institutes from Health Research, who said, the next kind of group born, the next generation will probably be known as the Gnome Generation, because it's highly likely that they will have their genome sequenced. And that will really inform so much about preventative health and health treatment and their health care. 

 

Considerations, of course, are extremely meaningful. Things like data protection, data sovereignty. Where is your genome being sequenced? Is the information staying safe and protected? Is it being used to further research that is potentially, fundamentally life changing, because there's just information that you can get on a larger scale. So big, high quality data will be transformational in terms of how to target, and let's say drug manufacturing, or maybe device development, that will be meant for smaller populations, but much more meaningful as a result of that.

 

PB:

 

It's interesting when you when you talk about sort of the data, the accessibility, not even just the technical challenges, I can envision the role the government's going to come in, in terms of, you know, where's that privacy and protection that we all come to expect with respect to our data? So there is a role for government for sure in that one.

 

SG:

 

It's something we've been giving some deep thought to indeed. A couple of years ago, the department had a competition under the Strategic Innovation Fund Program. And the orientation was around data digital solutions, and it was quite wide open. And out of that one of the competition victors was a company in Montreal called Imagia. They had a proposal that was quite intriguing because it actually solved for a number of the considerations, of course, that being in a federation, like Canada's with many jurisdictions, there are many different bodies that are protecting health data and Life Sciences data. 

 

And their solution set is to actually reach into the organizations that house, more or less most of the data, health data and do it in an anonymous way. So they eventually figured out a way to solve for this. And have created a collaborative space in which they're working towards oncology solutions as the first orientation. This is a technology that could be scaled up and and I find it just staggering that we have such bright and talented people in the country who are working on resolving some of these considerations for us. And indeed, I would say Canada leads the world in these creative type of solutions.

 

PB:

 

That's a great setup to a question I was gonna ask you in terms of, because we all know that government has a role to play in our future, but the future isn't defined by the government. I've heard it said that it takes an industry to raise a country. So what more do you think can be done?

 

SG:

 

So much more. Although I would say that my particular view is that, you know, there's actually, it's more than government and industry, there's also civil society, there's a big not-for-profit sector, there's a dynamic engagement across all parts of the ecosystem. 

 

And what more can be done, I would say, a huge focus on talent is extremely important for Canada as we go forward. We're recognized as having, you know, world class universities, fantastic colleges and polytechnic. I would say Covid has shown us that one of the rate limiters is actually access to skilled talent, in particular, in manufacturing some of the vaccines and therapies. So that is something that companies in the life sciences sector value quite highly and are chasing down the world over. So I think the combination of industry, government collaboration, to kind of get the sweet spot on what needs to be put in place is fantastic. 

 

Always cutting edge investment, R&D development, consideration of how to really push the boundaries and make sure that the population is being served in that regard. I would also say it's really important for Canada to not just think of itself alone as industry in Canada, that the world is our oyster, so not only serving the domestic population, but also thinking very much about scale up and the globe as the marketplace. So those are a few things that I would suggest needs to be considered a little bit more going down the path.

 

PB:

 

So great thoughts Sheryl. It always comes back to people and what we need to do what we need to focus on and come back to the theme of this podcast series: people, process and purpose in pharma. 

 

You've been listening to Sheryl Groeneweg, Director General of the Manufacturing and Life Sciences branch of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, on the NPC Podcast. Thank you for listening.

 

MS:

 

Thanks to Sheryl and to Peter. If you want to learn more about ISED, check out their website at www.ic.gc.ca

 

All eight of the winter series of NPC Podcast episodes are available to you on Google Podcasts, Apple iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. You can subscribe at pharmacongress.info and guarantee that you will never miss an episode. 

 

If you feel like leaving a comment about any of our past episodes or making suggestions for next season. Please direct message us on Twitter @2021NPC or send an email to health@chronicle.org. You can also pick up the phone and call our comment line at 647-873-6995. It's always open. 

 

Registration for the spring and summer NPC Webinars will begin very soon go to www.pharmacongress.info for information. 

 

The winter series of the NPC Podcast was presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. I'd like to thank Impress, especially Will and Tiana for their support this season. And I invite you to learn more about what they do by visiting www.impres.com

 

I'm Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies here in Toronto, where there's fresh roots and new signs of life. Your producer this season was Jeremy Visser and our announcer was Liona Droidworthy. The musical theme was performed by the NPC Podcast Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Walter Millbrook. 

 

Stay safe everyone. The NPC Podcast will return in April.