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Projecting lessons of competitive advantage within a pandemic

  • Communications
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  • Jun 17, 2021
Projecting lessons of competitive advantage within a pandemic

From left to right: Alan Bernstein, Karimah Es Sabar, Goldy Hyder and Paul Wells

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the global community, stressing health-care systems and economies around the world. In spite of its devastation, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks, in large part to the rapid development of vaccines, re-opening is now within grasp. In Canada, specifically, as of early June, more than 70 per cent of people 12 and older had received at least one dose of vaccine.

After a slow start, Canada’s portfolio approach to vaccine procurement is now paying dividends and with seemingly more than enough supply for the nation. As policy-makers have set their sights on economic recovery strategies, governments and business leaders could leverage this era of unprecedented collaboration to build competitive advantage around the domestic biosciences industry.

In the recent webinar, Not Gonna Miss Our Shot: Vaccines, Resilience and Economic Competitiveness, the Lawrence National Centre sought to take a forward-looking view at pandemic preparedness for the country. Moderated by Paul Wells, senior writer with Maclean’s, the distinguished panel of Alan Bernstein, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research, Karimah Es Sabar, Chief Executive Officer and Partner, Quark Venture, and Goldy Hyder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Business Council of Canada, discussed how Canada can better prepare for another inevitable pandemic by building resilience and competitive advantage.

Hyder called for Canada to take the lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience and use them to create a better future.

“If you want to honour those of the lives that we’ve lost, make life better for those who have lived. And a part of the way of doing that is making sure we do something we didn’t do after SARS – we gathered the data and information and went away – we didn’t act on it,” he said.

While Canada’s COVID-19 experience will be studied from myriad perspectives for decades to come, and as the nation seeks to develop domestic vaccine capacity and strengthen the local biosciences sector, three particular themes emerged from the conversation: deciding how Canada should innovate, our failure to scale, and public policy urgency.

Deciding where to innovate

According to Bernstein, also a member of the Federal COVID-19 Task Force, Canada needs to make some choices when it comes to the type of economy the country wants to have.

“Are we simply going to be an extractor of forests and mines and wheat, and oil, or are we going to go into the new knowledge-based industries?,” he said.

Referring to Canada’s strength in academic research as the “oil in the ground” needed to supply the foundation of a successful high-tech sector, Bernstein emphasized the need to focus on areas that Canadians care about most, including health care, renewable energy, and addressing climate change.

“We don’t need an economic study to know that good jobs for the next generation of Canadians are going to be in those knowledge-based industries. It’s going to be in health care, it’s going to be in startup biotech companies,” he said.

Failure to scale

Es Sabar, whom is also Chair, Health and Biosciences Economic Strategy Table of the Government of Canada, points to the fact Canada has already done the heavy-lifting in the biosciences arena, and that we should be building towards our strengths. However, despite world-leading universities, high-calibre research scientists, and innovative startups within the sector, Canada is failing when it comes to retention.

“We've been an off-balance sheet pipeline of innovation and technology, and an off-balance sheet pipeline of talent for the rest of the world,” said Es Sabar.

While it’s partly due to access to capital and overall economic policies, Es Sabar says Canada is not meeting its potential as a global biosciences leader.

“Where we have fallen short in Canada is in that latter part of scaling up sufficiently in bio manufacturing and enabling these companies to stay here,” she said.

If we want to compete, policy matters

Hyder believes the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that when government and business work together, they can solve problems for society. He did, however, stress the importance of sound public policy.

“Policies matter, regulations matter, and attitude matters. If you are a country that says, ‘I’m just going to settle for good enough,’ you’re not going to attract those who want to be the best,” he said.

While Hyder advocated for the limitation of bureaucratic red tape, Es Sabar also believes government needs to develop a clear growth strategy for Canada as a whole.

“We're not asking you to pick winners and losers in terms of which companies to invest in,” said Es Sabar. “But you've got to have an industrial policy around the sectors that you want to build on. What does Canada want to look like 10 years from now, and are you going to enable those sectors, if you want to build an innovation-driven digitized ESG economy?”

Bernstein, equating the COVID-19 situation to a time of war, believes we must capture and maintain our current momentum. 

“How do we maintain that urgency, when hopefully we revert back to peace time? How do we maintain that, not just in government, but throughout society, business, academia, and in startups, our venture capitalists – how do we have that hunger that is so critical in a world that is going to be changed so profoundly as a result of this pandemic?” he said.

Finally, Hyder cautioned the public to acknowledge government’s need to play the long game to create an environment where Canada can compete globally.

“We’ve got to make sure that the public understands that you shouldn’t penalize governments for trying to think a little long term, or try to do things that make us more competitive. We’ve got to make sure we educate Canadians in this regard, or we are going to go right back to business as usual on the political front,” he said.