Focus federal funding on best bets to boost biotech, Moderna co-founder says

·4 min read

OTTAWA — The Canadian co-founder of biotech firm Moderna says any federal plans to kick-start domestic innovation in a big way should target funding rather than spread it around the country.

Canadian politicians have a track record of trying to be equitable with their funding pledges to hit every region of the country, while similarly being conservative in how they hand out innovation funding.

There is a political calculation behind that, but Derrick Rossi said that setting the country up for long-run growth — especially in biotech — will require putting money behind the best bets and localities for growth of new firms.

The Liberals promised during the campaign to put $2 billion in a new agency that would fund "moon shot" ideas that may not always work out, modelling it on a decades-old program housed in the U.S. Department of Defense.

Known best by its acronym, DARPA, the American agency set up in 1958 has had a hand in funding companies, including Moderna and its mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 that is in use in Canada and around the world.

The success of the Liberals' proposals to create a Canadian DARPA rests on putting granting decisions into the hands of an apolitical body that has some independence from the mandate of the party in power, Rossi told a conference Thursday.

He added that seed funding for the organization would need to be substantial given the costs associated with getting a lab and biotech firm off the ground, and grants would likely have to be larger than those currently doled out in the country.

"It's got to, again, I'll say it again, not spread the money out, equitably across the country, even though that's a Canadian thing to do," he said during a virtual appearance. "And I can imagine that most Canadians their impulse would be to, yes, we need to be equitable with that. That's not wise for such a thing."

Despite federal efforts that landed the country with enough doses to vaccinate the population against COVID-19, the rush to get them highlighted a weakness in the Canadian innovation ecosystem.

What the pandemic highlighted was the limitations and gaps in the country's capacity to develop and manufacture enough vaccines and therapeutics to meet domestic demand.

The Liberals have looked to patch that lack of domestic capacity, with the top official at the Finance Department having met with the presidents of four major universities in the spring about crafting a bio-innovation strategy.

How to fuel some of that work was what brought Rossi to the big screen at the conference organized by the Coalition for a Better Future, a group of 100 think tanks, business, non-profit and Indigenous associations.

The groups issued a statement Thursday afternoon calling on the federal government to make economic growth a policy priority to help not only create jobs and raise incomes, but address climate change and improve quality of living indicators in the country.

The coalition also said it would track progress against a scorecard of 21 indicators recognized internationally as signs of a country's economic and social development.

During a keynote address Wednesday, Carolyn Wilkins, who was second-in-command at the Bank of Canada until late last year, said economic growth in Canada, as measured by real gross domestic product, averaged about 2.25 per cent annually in the decade leading up to the pandemic, putting the country near the top of its G7 peers.

But growth per person, one measure of prosperity, over that same time averaged around one per cent, near the bottom of the pack, with almost all of the per capita GDP gains having gone to those at the top part of the income spectrum, she said.

"Growth — the right kind of growth — is an essential ingredient to our shared objectives," Wilkins said in her speech.

"We need to focus on long-term investments in areas like education, health, globally competitive businesses, our green power grid, and modern digital governance. These investments will equip us to build a strong, resilient, and inclusive economy that will serve us well as we seek to meet our climate objectives."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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