Dr. Bettina Hamelin
President and CEO, Ontario Genomics
An increase in federal funding for engineering biology could give Canada an edge on innovative manufacturing initiatives to spur economic recovery and create homegrown jobs.
This year, the federal government invested more than $1.2 billion to support efforts to find a solution for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics, thinks this is a really important step, but worries that Canada is missing a much-needed strategic investments. Bringing researchers from diverse disciplines together will capitalize on biotech’s economic opportunity across health, agriculture, natural resources, and industrial biotechnology.
Today, too many products are made with synthetic chemistry from petroleum. Engineering biology is an emerging field that applies engineering principles to design, build and test living cells as “mini factories” that feed on waste to make materials we use every day. “The former is not sustainable in the long term, while the latter is a huge job-creating opportunity,” says Dr. Hamelin.
Collaborating towards a bio-revolution
In a recent podcast, Dr. Bettina Hamelin reflected on the global appetite for biotech investment and Canada’s path to remain competitive and even lead in the creation and commercialization of these disruptive technologies.
A report from McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, suggests a “bio-revolution” would create trillions in economic value between 2030–2040. Approximately half of this economic transformation would yield impact outside of health, going into renewable textiles, bioplastics, and cellular agriculture.
Engineering biology takes the science out of the lab to create tangible household goods in ways that use resources more efficiently. Imagine using the same biological processes that helped make your favourite beer or sourdough bread to make your next winter jacket.
These are not wishful ideas of the future. Global companies and innovative start-ups in all corners of the globe are already vying to lead in the transformation of traditional manufacturing.
Merging disciplines with engineering biology
“When we talk about using engineering biology to make useful products, you need to bring multiple disciplines and sectors together. Engineers need to work with mathematicians, computer scientists with biologists, and AI researchers with agricultural producers,” says Dr. Hamelin. “They may seem unrelated, but all of these experts need to talk to each other to facilitate the synergies necessary to produce effective and groundbreaking bioengineered products.”
The need to bring these experts and disciplines together led to the creation of the Canadian DNA Engineering Systems Network (Can-DESyNe), a nationwide network of almost 90 partners across biotech and biomanufacturing sectors. Contributors include industries, startups, academia, college and university students, and innovation support organizations.
Canada’s biomanufacturing moment
“The time is now. As global interest in biotech grows, it has become clear that compared to other jurisdictions, Canada is falling behind,” notes Dr. Hamelin.
“With the power of biotech, we can rethink what we know about manufacturing. You don’t necessarily need the economies of scale common in traditional manufacturing to stay competitive because the barrier of entry is so large,” she says. “We are talking about small batch and precision manufacturing, where a little really can go a long way. Take rural and northern regions, with smart investment in these technologies and skills development struggling communities can thrive.”
Supporting local supply chains
Dr. Hamelin also sees a much-needed opportunity for biomanufacturing to help address supply chain issues exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic also raised concerns over food security, putting more of an onus on biomanufacturing as a preventative measure. If local suppliers could produce plants more efficiently in greenhouses and meats that don’t require animal rearing, it would be a environment and economic “win” all at once, she says.
“Insulin, which is one of the original medical bio-engineered products, was first made in 1982. And, now with everything we’ve learned in biology over the last 40 years, the world really is our oyster,” says Dr. Hamelin. “Today, biotech is at the core of how we solve some of the most pressing issues from public health emergencies, to supply chain issues to environmental crises. It is our vision to use these technologies for healthier lives, healthier economies and a healthier planet.”