Life Sciences British Columbia (BC) is a membership-based, not-for-profit, non-government industry association that has represented, supported, and advanced the life sciences ecosystem in the province through a focus on collaboration, entrepreneurship, and innovation for over thirty years.
And it’s a focus that has worked.
As one of the largest organizations of its kind in Canada, Life Sciences BC’s membership is as broad as its reach. The organization serves as a non-physical hub to optimize connectivity, resource-sharing, partnership, and innovation for B.C.’s life sciences sector, bringing together academic and research institutions, small and medium enterprises, and global pharma manufacturers, service providers, investors, and policy makers.
President and CEO of Life Sciences BC Wendy Hurlburt defines the organization as “a hub for BC-sector stakeholders including [those in] biotech and medtech (including numerous global companies that operate in those spaces), diagnostics, digital health, and scientific suppliers.” Additionally, twenty percent of the organization’s membership comprises service providers that support the sector, including investors, lawyers, accountants, communications specialists, architects, consultants, and professionals in quality, privacy, and regulatory matters.
The organization’s members can rely on a range of valuable benefits, including networking and relationship-building opportunities, access to resources and programming, support, advocacy, and mentorship. These benefits are delivered through various means, such as events, education and programming, representation, and promotion on the LSBC website, weekly newsletters, and social media.
Life Sciences BC brings value to its members in many ways, but the most significant benefits come from the delivery of events and provision of resources, of which there are many. Each year, the organization hosts about twenty-five events focusing on everything from policy to investment to specialized courses like BioBasics 101: The Biology of Biotech for the Non-Scientist.
A popular offering is the Investor Readiness Program, an annual program that runs from October to March, which brings together ten early-stage small- and mid-size enterprises with an equal number of entrepreneurs-in-residence to offer education, mentorship, and coaching to help them become pitch-ready. An actual pitch opportunity takes place at the end of the process before a group of pre-qualified investors.
The Invest in BC Conference is another event that brings together stakeholders and investors in the healthcare innovation ecosystem over two days to enjoy presentations, panel discussions, pitches, and other opportunities to connect and share experiences that will provide beneficial feedback.
Career development is also an area of focus. This year marked the fourth annual Career Connect Day, a full-day event that brings together employers and prospective employees. Hurlburt explains that it “demystifies what careers look like in life sciences and offers the opportunity to hear from leaders about their career journeys, sector trends, and what skills people are looking for, and offers advice to people pursuing a career in life sciences.”
When Life Sciences BC isn’t hosting events, it represents the voice of the sector at conferences around the world. Whether a delegation is joining them or not, Hurlburt notes, “our members are always in our suitcase,” and their interests are always being advanced.
The same applies to the organization’s collaboration with government. The BC government recently released its first-ever life sciences strategy, signalling its confidence in the sector’s ability to create jobs, diversify the economy, and drive healthcare innovation. Life Sciences BC played an essential role in developing this strategy by providing valuable insights into member and sector needs.
Home to world-class science
For Hurlburt and Life Sciences BC, “it always begins with world-class science,” which leads to world-class companies.
B.C. is home to world-class academic and research institutions like the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, BC Cancer, St. Paul’s Hospital, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and others who work tirelessly to achieve advances that can be commercialized—though the commercialization process can prove a challenge.
Indeed, the life sciences sector faces significant growth challenges, primarily due to the increased need for capital, talent, and infrastructure. The availability of commercial wet lab space in particular is limited, with zero vacancies in the province currently.
“You need capital, talent, infrastructure, manufacturing, labs, data, IP, and ultimately, access to markets,” says Hurlburt about the ultimate goal of the organization. “When those are in alignment, you end up creating world-class companies that end up reinvesting in the life sciences sector.”
This reinvestment leads to what Hurlburt refers to as a “double helix benefit,” where jobs are created and the economy is diversified while also producing “innovative products, solutions, and services that are so critical for our healthcare system.” Life Sciences BC is thus chasing two complementary goals simultaneously, “whether it’s the security of our health system as we experienced it over the last couple of years or the development of innovative products, solutions, and services that are going to drive better patient outcomes and help the system run effectively and efficiently,” she explains.
As Hurlburt puts it, “One strategy to improve the function of the health and life sciences ecosystems is the reskilling, upskilling, and new-skilling of talent. While our sector is smaller than some others, we’re Canada’s third largest life sciences sector and the fastest growing.”
Creating jobs is crucial for growth but presents a unique challenge in the life sciences sector. Like other industries, the life sciences sector currently needs more talent, and this challenge is especially significant in a smaller sector with specialized talent requirements. While the sector offers the potential for an exciting and lucrative career, the need for more skilled professionals is a pressing problem that must be addressed.
Life Sciences BC is proactively addressing this issue by producing a labour market report to identify talent gaps and forecast the talent requirements for the next five years, with the aim of ensuring a steady flow of talent. Hurlburt recognizes the commendable efforts made by companies in the life sciences sector to be innovative in their talent attraction, retention, and development activities and acknowledges the government’s efforts to support the sector in this regard.
To this end, in partnership with the federal government, plans are underway to build a biomanufacturing training centre in BC to advance the sector through further talent development. The training centre is part of the provincial StrongerBC Future Ready commitment to address skills shortages and boost BC’s competitiveness.
Impact and momentum
Innovation involves risk, challenge, and, at times, failure, but the life sciences sector of British Columbia has found a way to break through barriers and develop solutions that have a resounding impact. This is especially true of the last couple of years.
While tragic for many and challenging for all, the pandemic created momentum for BC’s life sciences sector and reconfirmed the role that science plays in advancing healthcare on a global scale. Hurlburt highlighted two examples of BC innovation that changed the trajectory of the pandemic.
A BC-based company or scientist was involved in the initiation, development, or manufacture of the components of nearly every COVID-19 vaccine candidate that reached late-stage development in 2020. Similarly, a member company acquired one of the first COVID-19-positive blood samples from which antibodies were extracted, resulting in the first therapeutic treatment of the virus. However, these examples only scratch the surface of what has been achieved and what is possible.
With partnerships between industry players like adMare BioInnovations, which has received funding to develop a new wet lab facility, and Genome BC, which supports the industry via research funding and commercialization advancement programs, there is no shortage of collaboration in the interest of progress.
Hurlburt lives by the adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and the thriving life sciences sector is a testament to the truth of this statement. Life Sciences BC adopts a collaborative approach to innovation, development, and progress, which enables its members to advance their resources and capabilities. This strategy is proving effective in achieving shared goals within the sector.
As the life sciences sector in BC rivals the pace of company creation across Canada, greater efforts must be made to remove barriers to growth. Government policies regarding taxation, research, and development could make all the difference in encouraging investment that will realize the sector’s potential. Fortunately, Life Sciences BC is actively pursuing these ends using a unique model for a unique industry—one based on global collaboration—to ensure that the life sciences sector in BC and its members are empowered to elevate the industry and are recognized as world-class innovators.