On the Horizon: Pharmaceutical R&D
Mila News︱Stéphane Létourneau
Healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors have been undergoing a sea change in recent years. Many challenges exist in the development and commercialization of drugs and healthcare technologies as the cost of research and innovation continues to increase.
Montreal and Canada have been greatly impacted by these structural changes, experiencing a dramatic decrease in pharmaceutical R&D activities and medical manufacturing over the last several years amid consolidation and cost-cutting measures. This was made evident in a recent announcement by Procurement Minister Anita Anand. Speaking at the House of Commons industry committee, Anand stated that COVID-19 vaccine-makers declined to produce their products in Canada (with the exception of Novavax) as they deem the country’s biomanufacturing capacity “too limited to justify the investment of capital and expertise.”
Nonetheless, we believe that the AI healthcare revolution brings with it a unique opportunity to revive this field through the stimulation of partnerships between pharma and AI research institutes. While pharma R&D activities have declined, Montreal’s AI ecosystem has expanded to global recognition. With over 60 industry partnerships to date, the Mila hub now counts 21 industry partners from the life sciences sector, including two pharmaceutical companies. More and more companies specialized in life sciences are recognizing the value of partnering with innovative research institutes. Through these partnerships, Mila collaborates on several health initiatives, from fundamental and applied research projects with health-related applications to digital platforms that foster collaboration between various industry players.
One noteworthy example is the November 2020 launch of Roche Canada’s AI Centre of Excellence, the first of its kind to combine the expertise of the three national AI institutes under the CIFAR Pan-Canadian AI Strategy—Mila, Amii, and the Vector Institute. In the month prior, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada inaugurated the Canadian Biome Innovation Hub at Mila, which serves as a collaboration on-ramp for start-ups, entrepreneurs, research institutes, and private organizations for the discovery and development of scalable digital solutions for patients and healthcare.
By partnering with Mila, pharmaceutical companies open themselves up to collaborative opportunities with our vast community of researchers while keeping their internal research groups at the forefront of cutting-edge science. It also creates a unique networking alliance for pre-competitive research with the potential to hire from a talent pool of interns and graduate students, work closely with startups and interact with every facet of the ecosystem.
With the excitement about the tremendous potential of AI and machine learning, it is important to remember that the global AI community is still constructing its methodological foundations, and much work needs to be done to ensure the development of responsible AI with societal benefits at the core. But the open science mentality that exists within this expansive AI ecosystem is increasingly drawing interest from the pharmaceutical sector as a privileged opportunity for collaboration with external expertise and accelerated innovation. We believe that Mila can play a catalytic role in that regard.
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