his commentary was adapted from the 2011-2012 Annual Report of Ag-West Bio, a not-for-profit, member-based organization funded by Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward program. Member companies include research organizations, industry, research service organizations, economic development organizations and commodity groups. Members represent the biotechnology, bioproducts and biofuels, and health and nutrition sectors.
Change and uncertainty are a reality these days, but in the case of Saskatchewan biosciences, the only uncertainty is whether we can grow fast enough to take full advantage of opportunities. Government organizations, research labs and industry are working together ever more closely to build on our foundations. They are filling gaps, solving problems, and positioning the entire sector as competitively as possible in a rapidly changing world.
A shift in federal government priorities poses great potential for bioscience research. Roman Szumski, vice president for life sciences at the National Research Council in Ottawa, explains that the NRC is refocusing into a unified and industry-driven organization, addressing areas of national importance.
“We are strengthening areas where we can make meaningful contributions, have a measurable impact and a positive return on our investment. We have confidence that we know how to do that because we’ve done it before with our research partnerships on canola,” he says.
The NRC is rolling out a series of flagship projects to focus on solving specific problems in industry. NRC’s Saskatoon lab will take the lead on a wheat flagship, with the goal of accelerating the development of wheat varieties to create more profitable wheat crops for farmers. Another flagship will involve the development of industrial biomaterials for automotive construction industries.
Innovation Saskatchewan has identified that Saskatchewan has an abundance of resources that are in line with what the world needs: more food and more energy. The Saskatchewan Government has begun plans for a Global Institute for Food Security. The bioscience industry will be at the forefront of the project.
Jerome Konecsni, CEO of Innovation Saskatchewan, says companies thrive here, thanks to the research infrastructure, including the national labs, Ag-West Bio, Canadian Light Source (CLS), and the university. He admits, however, that gaps still need to be addressed: “We need to build our skill levels in marketing new products and ingredients, as well as management of biotech companies. We need more companies that create value-added products.”
Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio, agrees: "In the long term, we need 10 times more companies than we have now. A short-term goal would be to at least double the number of companies in livestock, crops, green technologies and health care."
New companies need investment and infrastructure, and there is increasing availability for both. This year, funding to the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) was effectively doubled, which is significant to start-up companies and translates to bioscience research opportunities.
Innovation Place plays an important role in helping start-up businesses succeed. Doug Tastad, CEO of Innovation Place, says they do everything they can to support start-up companies. “There are some amazing crossovers. Our biggest clusters are biosciences and mining technology.”
Tastad cites the labs, greenhouses and controlled growth chambers at the biotechnology complex, and the Bio Processing Centre, as examples of Innovation Place’s commitment to providing infrastructure to industry. “We try to react to industry needs as soon as possible.”
The wealth of experience that exists in the bioscience cluster is another crucial component to success. Paul McCaughey, research and development director at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), says, “We’ve evolved to the point where we complement each other, rather than competing. For example, NRC has focused on genomics of abiotic stress resistance in canola, while AAFC has focused on brassica breeding and genomics of disease resistance. Two halves make a whole, so to speak.”
McCaughey says we need to ensure experienced scientists transfer their knowledge to the next generation of researchers: “We’re looking for the next ‘Cinderella crop,’ and we have a deep well of experience in this kind of research.”
The University of Saskatchewan is doing its part to furnish the industry with researchers. Mary Buhr, Dean of Agriculture and Bioresources, says at the U of S, enrollment in her college is growing fastest. “We have way more jobs than we can fill with our graduates.” Buhr identifies a potential opportunity to work with industry to train existing employees in business and management. “We need to take experienced undergraduates and retrain them to the next level.”
The global economic climate may also be a positive opportunity for the province, she says. “Saskatchewan is one of the few locations in the world that hasn’t suffered a major recession. We have a fabulous opportunity to attract employees of superior caliber from other countries.”
Meeting a Global Challenge
Global issues surrounding food, health and energy will benefit from biosciences research in Saskatchewan, both at a fundamental and applied level.
Keller notes that technology is changing rapidly. “There is a whole range of opportunities as we move into the genomics era, beyond 2012. In Canada, and especially Saskatchewan, we need to be at the forefront of not only adopting these innovations, but in developing them.”
“The plant is a factory that makes an array of components. We need to understand those components and how they are made, learn how to extract them or modify them to better suit our needs, and apply them for different uses.”
Konecsni of Innovation Saskatchewan agrees. “Our investment in genomics, diagnostics and bio-informatics needs to be taken to a whole new level. We need new imaging processes to create a more targeted approach to strain development. We are looking for positive outcomes, and curiosity-based and discovery research is a critical component of that.”
AAFC will be using its expertise and partnering with other members of the bioscience sector on research to explore new crops, such as Camelina sativa and Brassica carinata, which have potential for use in jet biofuel. “There is potential for significant acreage in the province to be devoted to new brassicas, very quickly,” says McCaughey.
Several projects under way at the U of S support global issues of food security and improvement of local economies. One example is biofortification of pulse crops with trace minerals to improve nutrition in developing countries; another project is a fast-growing willow tree that can be harvested annually, a potential cash crop for Saskatchewan’s northern regions.
In the next five years, the research and business communities will be pulling together even further in order to stay competitive on genomics research, knowledge generation and creating an environment for commercialization. Keller concludes, “The combination of knowledge generation and business development is our ‘one-two punch.’ ”