By Nathan White
As appeared on page A1

New Brunswick needs to think outside its borders to develop an innovation strategy in the life sciences sector, experts say.

Business New Brunswick Minister Greg Byrne says innovation will play a key role in the government’s self-sufficiency agenda, which includes growth in life sciences and bioeconomy research.

Life sciences is the study of living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin and evolution. It encompasses such areas as biochemistry, biomedicine, biotechnology, cell biology, genetics, marine biology, microbiology, plant biology and zoology.

And while the Business New Brunswick minister has high hopes for its role in fulfilling the self-sufficiency agenda, Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, cautions that a provincial strategy might not be enough.

Cirtwill argues that the province needs to build on what’s already going on in the region, pointing across the Northumberland Strait to Prince Edward Island, which has quietly built momentum.

“All you guys have to do is look across the Confederation Bridge,” said Cirtwill, whose organization is an independent economic and social policy think tank. “They’re playing to their strengths with life science and bioscience research based on agriculture and fisheries and tying it into health research.”

What P.E.I. has done well over the past decade or so, said Cirtwill, is build private-public partnerships and create an environment where it’s OK to fail, which encourages future innovation. He said that explains why the province attracts roughly eight times as much health research funding as New Brunswick on a per-capita basis.

Cirtwill said “you’re hearing some of the right things coming from the government of New Brunswick,” but he hopes the province isn’t planning to innovate in a silo.

“To expect to build it while keeping walls around our provinces, the world doesn’t operate that way,” he said. “Any made-in-New-Brunswick solution has to be a solution that involves linking other people.”

He said that in Western Canada and the neighbouring U.S. states, there’s a much stronger network of health innovation.

For example, “a researcher specializes in a certain cellular kind of analysis and (another) facility specializes in breaking down genes. They work very closely with one another and have equally expensive and complementary technology,” said Cirtwill. “Facilities can split costs and share resources. It’s a very interesting model that works very well and it’s underutilized in this region.”

David Foord, the director of intellectual property in the University of New Brunswick’s office of research services, agreed that success in innovation should transcend geographic boundaries.

“We need to think outside our borders, definitely. Not just the Maritimes or Atlantic Canada; partnerships built to develop solutions can be national and international partnerships. We’ve got to be open to those things,” said Foord.

Across the continent, that’s exactly what Warren McKenzie, the chair of Fredericton’s Cancer Populomix Institute, was working on Wednesday.

McKenzie and other researchers from the region met with researchers from the world-renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

They’re hoping to exchange information and work toward an Atlantic project McKenzie believes could attract funding. It would take advantage of the region’s “amazingly stable” populations, which provide a unique advantage in cancer research. McKenzie explained that easier access to multiple generations of a family makes it easier to pinpoint patterns that may help in early detection of cancer.

“We believe we can undertake a stable population study and investigate biomarkers that indicate impending cancers to help us detect cancer in New Brunswickers, Nova Scotians, Prince Edward Islanders and Newfoundlanders,” he said. “We expect to see much greater success rates in the future. We just have to build the capacity and the receptors for the (research) money.”

McKenzie pointed out that the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Canada’s major health research funding agency, has recognized good work in the province. For example, Nicole Letourneau of the University of New Brunswick was named Canada’s Premier Young Researcher by the institutes last year for her work in the area of postpartum depression.

McKenzie said the award shows that health research can be successful in New Brunswick. And Foord is quick to list a handful of other projects associated with UNB, from wireless technology that transmits patient data into ambulances to prosthetic device development to obesity research.

“It’s not necessarily focused on a homerun blockbuster drug,” he said. The key thing is to find a niche where you can be a credible player.”

McKenzie said the province’s poor showing in attracting funding is partly a function of the lack of medical schools. That should change as the newly opened medical school at the Université de Moncton and its forthcoming counterpart at UNB build momentum, said McKenzie.

“When you have a med school, particularly a researching school obviously the more researchers you’ve got, the higher calibre your research; and your success rate is going to go up,” he said.

Cirtwill said private sector research also has an important role to play. To attract it, he said the region needs to overcome its aversion to tolerating failure as well as an “inherent bias” against using the words “private sector” and “health” in the same sentence.

“If someone says maybe we should be eyeing more private sector participation in the health sector, there’s a strong negative reaction,” said Cirtwill. “If you’re a private researcher sitting at the University of Toronto or Montreal, and you’re looking at an environment where innovation isn’t welcome, is that a place you want to take your research and expect to be supported?”

He added that health shouldn’t be targeted as “the saviour,” but that all research and development should be encouraged.

“You can’t get into the business of picking winners and losers in the R&D sector any more than in tourism or retail,” he said.

“You just have to create the environment for them to go for it.”