How Canada can become a global leader in health innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond
by Sarrah Lal, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Department of Medicine, McMaster University; Jeremy Hirota, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, McMaster University, and Milica Vukmirovic, Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Medicine, McMaster University
Some start-ups and researchers have been involved in developing software and digital platforms to address pandemic commerce and health-care needs
Canada is approaching the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic. It is clear that both government and industry have developed responsive research and innovation efforts towards solving current and emerging challenges.
The Canadian government has awarded significant funding to innovative research teams for COVID-19-related research projects.
Several Canadian start-ups are now leading the development of technologies including but not limited to digital platforms, devices and robots to support diagnosing and managing COVID-19.
A February 2020 report from the province of Ontario called for entrepreneurship to be embedded in academic research. Soon after, the gravity of a global pandemic confronted Canadians, as did a rapid demand for local manufacturing, homegrown vaccines, new clinical care models and COVID-19 testing.
These efforts required collaboration between public and private sectors: researchers, clinicians and industry professionals. As researchers involved with health innovation initiatives, we believe that there are important lessons to be learned from these collaborations.
We believe these lessons can inform how universities support health research and innovation that respond to societal needs.
Research to impact
Historically, universities have focused on education and new knowledge creation. Universities assess faculty performance through publications, research grants, teaching evaluations and conference presentations.
In the United States, the past decade has seen an acceleration in the number of health-care start-ups and biotech companies emerging from universities and research centres. This is especially evident in cities with major life sciences clusters like Boston, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area where companies are growing in number, rate of development, jobs created and, ultimately, economic impact.
In Canada, the shift towards socio-economic impact is far less pronounced. Universities have generated significantly less intellectual property and commercial value when compared to the top 100 academic institutions worldwide. Why is there such a difference?
Challenges and opportunities
Most university-based health research groups are not ready to translate findings into intellectual property or solutions that can be applied to real-world problems. This is not how health or science researchers are trained to think because this is not how academia traditionally measures performance. Therefore the potential socio-economic impact of a project rarely influences academic research decisions.
Canada is keen to support innovation. However, a high amount of interest and innovation grants have not yielded the anticipated level of entrepreneurial activity. We believe that a focus on enhancing existing infrastructure will yield a long-term increase in societally responsive projects. With appropriate supports, universities can identify and prioritize projects focused on unmet needs, spur the creation of relevant industry partnerships and contribute more significantly to the development of early-stage technologies, as seen in the U.S.
Many research-intensive universities and hospitals have technology transfer offices (TTOs). These include groups like the McMaster Industry Liaison Office and the Innovation & Partnership Office at the University of Toronto. These groups focus on identifying research with potential for socio-economic impact and creating industry connections. TTOs often work alongside university incubators such as Velocity at the University of Waterloo or The Forge at McMaster University. The difference is that incubators and accelerators are focused on early-stage company formation and provide such early-stage ventures with mentorship, workshops and in-kind supports.
Innovation often requires a combination of basic and applied research — research focused on improving our understanding of the world (like how a disease develops) and research that uses existing knowledge to achieve a practical goal (like identifying a new molecule to treat a disease).
Calling for greater collaboration among health researchers, entrepreneurs and industry does not mean that commercial interests should be the driving force behind research and education. In fact, calling for greater collaboration means acknowledging our respective strengths.
As we have seen during the pandemic, industry partnerships can inform our understanding of where university research is needed. Experiential learning opportunities can help us discover, articulate and solve an unmet need.
Continued innovation after COVID-19
We propose five ways for Canadian universities and hospitals to become global leaders in health innovation during the pandemic and beyond.
- Reorganize research teams to generate new value and start-ups at universities and hospitals. There are several innovation programs integrated with hospitals — such as the newly formed Michael G. DeGroote Innovation, Commercialization & Entrepreneurship initiative in Hamilton and the well-established Biomedical Zone in Toronto. These programs must provide access to seed funding and coaching in areas such as intellectual property protection and business development. An unsupported idea cannot generate impact. In fact, Canada’s strong response to research and development requests during the pandemic was because universities and academic hospitals were quickly funded through additional sources.
- Support multi-disciplinary student innovation teams. Many universities offer programs focused on engaging learners to identify and solve unmet needs. Teams co-design projects with patient advisers, clinical teams and industry representatives. After their solutions are validated, teams can be supported by university-based innovation initiatives such as The Clinic or other local resources, including regional innovation centres or local hospitals for pilot testing and, eventually, implementation.
- Create entrepreneurial education that is accessible for even the busiest people through flexible programs, not simply through standardized credit courses. Entrepreneurial education is increasingly modular, experiential and often asynchronous. Fellowships, internships and tailor-made programs allow access to training necessary to develop early-stage technologies. A standardized approach to entrepreneurial health education across Canada would ensure a common innovation language.
- Consider innovation, entrepreneurship and socio-economic impact as being a component of academic responsibilities. Universities can ensure that creating intellectual property or engaging in entrepreneurial pursuits contributes towards promotion and tenure.
- Increase capacity to pilot and adopt new technologies. Start-ups often struggle with acquiring customers and implementing technologies in health-care organizations. Health start-ups and health organizations are beginning to use innovation procurement processes to develop, validate or purchase new technologies. However these practices are slow to be adopted. “Request for proposal” processes are typically much faster and less resource-intensive than their “request for solution” counterparts. But the latter often provides tailor-made solutions with better long-term value.
Canadian universities have demonstrated their ability to rapidly innovate in this time of need. We should continue to support innovative and entrepreneurial thinking to address health needs now and after the pandemic has ended.