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B.C.’s biotech sector renaissance requires science and tech skills recruitment

More must be done to keep the province’s talent pipeline flowing in the right direction
Xenon Pharmaceuticals has drugs in late-stage clinical trials, which require a specialized skillset

This article was originally published in Life Sciences Magazine. Read the full digital edition here.

Like any other sector of the economy, life sciences are vulnerable to talent shortages, which could squelch investment and growth.

“We’re in the middle of a generational moment in life sciences in British Columbia and, frankly, across Canada, and so any of those pain points that threaten to slow down the growth or diminish the capacity of the industry to seize the moment is a big concern for sure,” says Gordon McCauley, CEO of adMare BioInnovations, a non-profit organization that supports the Canadian life sciences sector.

“In my view, it is absolutely threatening growth, and I think you see it in two places. One is at the leadership level – the managerial level. That’s a big issue, especially when you’re trying to attract global investors to a startup company. They want to know the track record and history of the people running that business. And the other place we see it is really at the front lines, with bench scientists. We just need more front-line science workers.”

Fortunately, British Columbia’s biotech and pharmaceutical sector appears to be in a pretty good place right now. It is experiencing a renaissance of multibillion-dollar late-stage drug discovery companies and has a critical mass that allows it to attract talent from all over the world, as well as repatriate Canadian scientists lost to a brain drain that began more than a decade ago.

Companies such as Stemcell Technologies, Xenon Pharmaceuticals, AbCellera Biologics and Zyemworks Inc. are anchor companies that help B.C. draw talent from around the world. Last year alone, Stemcell hired 700 new workers, bringing its total headcount to 2,300, with 1,800 of those individuals working in B.C. About 35 per cent of Stemcell’s workforce has a PhD.

“We’ve been growing 20 per cent year-over-year for almost 30 years now,” says Helen Sheridan, chief human resources officer for Stemcell Technologies. “We had a slight blip during COVID, but we recovered from that, so we’ve just been on a sustained long-term growth track, with no end in sight.”

One region that Stemcell has drawn on for talent is Ireland, which, like British Columbia, has a growing biotech industry.

“I think the Stemcells and the AbCellaras of the world, given their growth – Xenon too – they are able to attract people from other places to come here,” McCauley says. “That is something the young companies don’t have. The good news about that is that, if you asked that question 10 years ago, it was extremely difficult to recruit people to come here. Things are dramatically better today than they were even a few years ago.”

A little over a decade ago, B.C.’s nascent biotech and biopharma sector suffered a major crisis. B.C.’s first crop of major biotechs – companies like QLT and Angiotech – fizzled or flamed out and investment in life sciences dried up for several years.

The more-recent success of companies like Zymeworks, AbCellera, Stemcell and Xenon has brought investment – and scientists – flowing back to the sector.

“Historically, a lot of scientists go elsewhere to work,” says Brenda Bailey, B.C. minister of jobs, economic development and innovation. “There’s been a fairly long-standing brain drain of well-trained Canadian scientists going south or to Europe. What’s happening with the growth of our biotech sector is that that brain drain is starting to reverse, and we’re seeing British Columbians who had to take work elsewhere in the world get to come home.”

The federal and provincial governments, universities and organizations like adMare BioInnovations have been working to ensure that B.C. continues to produce and attract the scientific talent it needs to sustain and grow the sector.

At the C-suite level, AdMare BioInnovations runs an academy that provides intensive leadership development training for 25 executives in life sciences from across Canada each year.

“We now have just shy of 100 graduates of that program from across the country, a number of which have been promoted into leadership roles,” McCauley says. “When we started that program, we said it was going to be 50 per cent men, and 50 per cent women and broadly reflect the diversity of Canada. In the first couple of years that we started that program, we had to do pro-active work to encourage women to apply. We stopped having to do that a couple of years ago. Last year, in our fifth cohort, we had more women than men.”

At the other end, there is a growing need for basic lab technicians for biomanufacturing.

“We have some real deficits in the life sciences industry in skills around manufacturing and production,” Sheridan says.

The federal and provincial governments have been trying to address this gap by putting more money into post-secondary training. Notably, the new National Biomanufacturing Training Centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) will provide the skills training for biomanufacturing.

“That’s scaling up right now, and we’ll graduate about 700 people a year when it’s fully operational,” Bailey says. “And that’s not enough. We need to do more.”

There is a growing need for specialists who have specific skills in taking drugs through later stage clinical trials and commercialization.

“As a maturing sector, we don’t have the specialty areas that we’d need,” McCauley says. “So, for example, clinical trial design or regulatory management is a specialty that we don’t typically have a lot of. So that’s quite often something you have to recruit from other places.”

That’s one of the reason’s why Xenon has offices in Boston and other provinces and states – it goes where the talent is.

“Part of that is because of the lack of skilled, late-stage clinical development staff in Canada,” says Shelley McCloskey, executive vice-president of human resources for Xenon Pharmaceuticals, which is developing drugs that treat neurological disorders, including epilepsy. The company has two drugs in Phase 3 clinical trials, and four in Phase 2.

“We hire where the talent is.”

Xenon employs 250 people across Canada and the U.S., with plans to grow to about 500 as the company moves its drugs into commercial sales. About 175 of Xenons’ employees are in Vancouver.

It takes a multi-disciplinary team to take a compound through clinical trials and commercialization, McClosky says. Fortunately, there is some local talent with those specialized skills, leftover from B.C.’s last biotech boom in the early 2000s.

“We’re probably best positioned in Canada, because we had a history in the early 2000s of those early drug development companies that often did a lot of it themselves,” McClosky says.

“By the time you get to Xenon’s stage – where you really need the deep capital markets and you need the external drug development expertise – it’s a small population in Canada. One of the great advantages for Xenon is that we do have some of those people in British Columbia.”

This article was originally published in Life Sciences Magazine. Read the full digital edition here.

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