The Telegram (St. John's)

Moderna founder calls on Canada to build biotech hub

- BARBARA SHECTER

The founder of Moderna, maker of one of the key vaccines in the fight against COVID-19, is urging businesses, universiti­es and government­s in Canada to create a biotech hub in this country like the ones in Boston and San Francisco so it can rely less on foreign nations the next time there is a global health crisis.

Some of the elements that made those U.S. cities pharmaceut­ical powerhouse­s, such as well-funded and cuttingedg­e research at respected universiti­es, are already in place in Canada, said Derrick Rossi, who was born and educated in Toronto before making his name as a stem cell and regenerati­ve biology professor at Harvard and one of the pioneers of the MRNA technology behind the Moderna shot.

But the Canadian sector lacks cohesion and a clear template to bring the required elements together — a plan that would incorporat­e commercial real estate developmen­t and lay the groundwork for the creation of anchor companies.

“I’ve been on the phone several times with representa­tives of both the federal government and the Ontario government, just giving advice and weighing in on future directions for how Canada should think about not getting caught with its pants down next time,” Rossi said in a recent interview.

“I’m advocating for a manufactur­ing sector, biomedicin­e and vaccines.”

In addition to government, Rossi said he is consulting with the University of Toronto and what he refers to as the “bioentrepr­eneurial community,” encouragin­g them to emulate the reinventio­n of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., in the 1980s, or the San Francisco area, which house hundreds of life science, biotech and pharma companies ranging from startups to behemoths like Biogen, Amgen and Vertex Pharmaceut­icals Inc.

“They’re all here for a reason, because of this biotech community,” said Rossi, who has been a founder of five different biotech companies.

“Canada has great science and many of the elements, but (a broader) ecosystem is very important.”

Just a few decades ago, Cambridge, where Moderna is based, “was a wasteland of dangerous, really shady parking lots and warehouses and storage places,” he said.

But then, a crucial decision was made by government­s of the day to “take this big chunk of land and try to develop it into a biotech hub,” Rossi said.

The plan involved real estate developers, who got involved to transform a swathe of land close to Harvard and the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology, where critical research was taking place.

There was also a broad effort to encourage the creation of “anchor” companies such as Genzyme, a multiple sclerosis drug maker that was ultimately bought by pharmaceut­ical giant Sanofi.

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