From the Desk of Dr. Kelleher: Dean’s Update | November
Universities change the world in two ways. They educate the next generation of thought leaders, individuals who serve society. They are also a catalyst for innovation, creating new knowledge that ultimately benefits society. This new knowledge often takes time to diffuse through to real societal impact, however – in the case of mathematics and science discoveries, sometimes decades and even centuries. There is widespread acknowledgement that innovation is a critical driver of “better health and wealth.” As our population ages and grapples with complex health issues, and the cost of health care escalates, faculties of medicine are increasingly looking at opportunities to foster innovation and to shorten the critical time from discovery to clinical practice.
For an individual researcher, this process involves a considerable educational experience and comes with its highs and lows. The creation and patenting of new intellectual property is in itself a complex process and involves some dissociation from the processes of peer-reviewed publication that we are all familiar with. And it’s not all rocket science! In my specialty of gastroenterology, one of the most useful inventions is a very simple Heath Robinson device that fires off elastic bands from an endoscope to prevent gastrointestinal bleeding from oesophageal varices. The second phase where one defines both the societal and commercial need is critically important – and sometimes frustrating for an investigator. Many stellar ideas may not make it to market – the clinical trial process has far more failures than successes, and low-tech solutions may sometimes be more successful than intellectually satisfying high-tech approaches. It can be highly rewarding, however, as success in patenting and developing intellectual property has the capacity to not only transform patient lives but also the economies in which the IP is developed. Just look at the enormous development in cities such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Boston, all cities that leverage substantial venture capital funding on the basis of NIH and other peer-reviewed grant funding. The success of innovation in such centres demonstrates that a centre of excellence in medicine and biomedical science is not a cost to the community, but may be a driver of wealth to the city that such a centre serves.
So where are we at UBC and how can we move forward? Firstly, UBC is doing a great job in licensing and spinning out new intellectual property, ranking at the 96th percentile in Canada. The 2013 Global Innovation Index highlights this, rating Vancouver among the best global centres, such as Seattle and Tel Aviv, in the quality of the talent in innovation (page 76). While also viewed as the best in Canada in venture capital, however, Vancouver falls well short of its international peers in this same analysis. Nonetheless there are substantial success stories, such as Oncogenex, co-founded by Martin Gleave (Head of the Department of Urologic Sciences and Director of the Vancouver Prostrate Centre), which has drugs in development that target mechanisms of treatment resistance in cancer; Xenon, co-founded by Michael Hayden (from the Department and Medical Genetics and the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics), whose discovery platform has yielded the first gene therapy product approved in the Western world; and viDA Therapeutics, co-founded by David Granville (Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation), which is targeting a family of enzymes in treating inflammatory and age-related conditions of the skin, respiratory, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and neurological systems. While these are just a few examples of leadership in this space, there are many more in precision medicine, laboratory and data sciences which are also notable.
How can we advance, leverage and do better? One would think success would be dependent on a clear-cut plan to move things forward, but it is not that simple. Innovation is not necessarily an iterative process – disruptive technologies can occur in unexpected ways and transform environments in short order. Nonetheless there are some critical points. Firstly, the time is always now! All over the world and especially in Asia, societies are waking up to the transformative capabilities of knowledge-based economies. We must be aware that we are working within an internationally competitive environment and avoid complacency – there is no prize for second-place in the world of intellectual property. Secondly, we do need to ensure that we are visibly recognized as a source of global and international excellence in specific areas of research, to attract the attention of the world. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we must foster an environment that is seen to be “business-friendly,” an environment in which start-up companies can prosper and succeed. We need to persuade the investment world that British Columbia is an excellent place to establish start-up companies, develop, and test new drugs and technologies. Put simply, we need to not only innovate but also communicate a vision of a vibrant knowledge economy, driven by the spirit of innovation in our rich academic environment.
Such an environment must include collaboration with government as well as partner institutions in both health care and education as well as industrial and commercial partners, with a collective commitment to excellence and innovation. As we move to develop the Faculty of Medicine’s strategy for the next five years, I will welcome input from such partner institutions and organizations, as it is critical that we collectively reflect on this opportunity to lead in innovation, and consider how we can expand the pool of translational talent in B.C., enhance the culture of innovation, and provide an environment that is persuasive for investors. We have a unique environment for translational medicine here – and an opportunity to provide national and international leadership. It is now time to leverage this for the health and economic benefit of the province, and for the benefit of patients worldwide.
Dermot Kelleher, MD, FRCP, FRCPI, FMedSci
Dean, Faculty of Medicine
University of British Columbia