Technology Meets Biology in Canada

by Andrii Buvailo  , Natalia Honchar    Contributor 

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Over the past decade, Canada emerged as a promising global location for drug discovery and biotech business, especially when it comes to applying advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing in life sciences.

The technological focus of the country’s economic strategy is reflected, for instance, in the local popularity of such organizations as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), which celebrates 40 years since its foundation in 2022. CIFAR is gaining the support of multiple individuals, organizations, and the governmental bodies of Canada -- in Alberta and Quebec. For example, in 2017, the government of Canada gave a lead to CIFAR in developing the $125M Pan-Canadian AI Strategy. According to their vision, by 2030, Canada could have one of the most robust national AI ecosystems worldwide.

In our recent article Toronto’s Blossoming AI-driven Drug Discovery Scene we explored a ​​vibrant AI community of Toronto with several notable artificial intelligence companies in drug discovery, including Cyclica, ProteinQure, Deep Genomics, Phenomic AI, and others. The city appears to be a leading hub in the region, fueled in part by the presence of the University of Toronto and its tech community.  

BenchSci is a Google-backed tech company redefining how e-commerce should work in the life sciences. At the beginning of 2022, BenchSci completed a Series C funding round with C$63 million led by Inovia Capital and TCV. BenchSci is expected to further expand its AI-powered software platform, tailored as a reagent and model systems selection algorithm. 

Founded in 2013, Cyclica is a Toronto-based neo-biotech focusing on proteome-wide AI-enabled computing. They developed two machine learning engines: MatchMaker and POEM, where the first one predicts the polypharmacology of small molecules. At the same time, POEM (Pareto Optimal Embedding Model) is a similarity-based property prediction model. In February 2022, Cyclica launched Perturba Therapeutics, a spin-out from the University of Toronto focused on AI-enabled oncology drug design.

The development of cell and gene therapies also does not stand still in Canada. Contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) OmniaBio Inc., a subsidiary of the Toronto-based Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), specializes in producing gene-modified cell therapies and viral vectors. According to the news of spring 2022, Ontario province would invest up to $40M to create a new manufacturing facility for OmniaBio at Hamilton’s McMaster Innovation Park. The money is raised through Invest Ontario, the province’s investment attraction agency, taking part in the general project investment of over $580M.

Additionally, in July 2022, a South Korea-based Medipost acquired an interest in OmniaBio, paying cash $30 million and investing an additional $60M, followed by the NGen’s contribution of $10.5 million in September 2022. 

Founded in Toronto, BlueRock Therapeutics focuses on cell therapies, having therapeutic candidates at the clinical trials stage. As an example, the cell therapy for Parkison's disease BRT-DA01 entered the open-label Phase 1 study in June 2022, marked with the completed enrollment in the study. Bayer acquired the company in 2019, and now it functions as Bayer’s subsidiary. 

It should be noted that Toronto is not the only place to be in tech-savvy biology research and entrepreneurship in Canada. For example, a notable company from British Columbia in the area of quantum computing is D-Wave, which is developing practical applications for real-world problems, including pharmaceutical research. In the exclusive interview with BiopharmaTrend: How D-Wave Brings Quantum Computing Into Biology, Murray Thom, VP of Software and Cloud Services at D-Wave, gave many insights into how quantum computing works and how it is practically applied for drug development purposes. In February 2022, the company went public via SPAC route. Importantly, D-Wave was supported by several grants from the Canadian government for a total of around $50 million, along with other investors.

Another notable Vancouver-based company, a clinical-stage biotech AbCellera, made headlines in 2020 when it closed the biggest-ever initial public offering by a Canadian biotechnology company raising US$555.5 million in gross proceeds, more than double the prior record for a Canadian biotech IPO, by Montreal’s Repare Therapeutics in June of the same year. AbCellera created an end-to-end antibody discovery platform enabled by advanced machine learning algorithms. 

In May 2020, AbCellera received $175.6 million from the government of Canada to discover solutions for COVID-19 and build a manufacturing facility for antibody drugs. 

The role of venture capital firms and business accelerators should not be undervalued in Canada’s life science community. For instance, Vancouver-based adMare BioInnovations is a global life sciences venture which is enhancing the biotech ecosystem growth in Canada. In September 2022, they announced a new partnership with Genome Canada, aiming to support the commercialization of genomics solutions in healthcare. Notably, adMare is also not left aside without governmental support: in March 2022 Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry of Canada announced a $92 million investment in adMare Bio Innovations to help translate promising health research into commercialized therapies. With the innovation centers in Vancouver and Montreal, multiple stakeholders can get adMare’s scientific expertise, research infrastructure, and business development support.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the landscape of the Canadian Life Science sector. In October 2022, the government announced C$11.1 million in funding for mRNA vaccine technology development at the University of British Columbia. The funding is sourced through the Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada (PacifiCan) to enhance the delivery and efficacy of mRNA vaccines. One of the projects will receive C$3.5 million of PacifiCan support to improve vaccine uptake in the human body. The rest of the funding was secured for addressing the emerging COVID-19 variants, preventing their further spreading. 

"PacifiCan is committed to supporting British Columbia’s life sciences sector, and these projects at the University of British Columbia reflect that commitment. Establishing a home-grown pipeline for mRNA vaccine research will not only save lives but create jobs for British Columbians and position Canada as a global leader in biotechnology innovation,” commented the Minister of International Development Harjit S. Sajjan

At the same time, in April 2022, it was announced that Montreal will become a host of a new Moderna vaccine production and research facility. It is expected to open in 2024 and give 200 to 300 new job places, as well as additional R&D capacities. The announcement was made at McGill University in Montreal, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also mentioned the potential of mRNA technology for not only COVID-19 but also Alzheimer’s and cancer treatment. 

The growing dynamics of the local life science industry are fueled by the favorable Canadian tech environment with early programs and funding provided by multiple research institutes and councils, as well as hundreds of government investment programs with private sector initiatives. Last but not least, the government also offers grant programs and start-up visas for overseas entrepreneurs who want to launch their companies in Canada, thereby stimulating professional immigration to Canada.  

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