Lessons from Atlantic Canada’s biotech sector: Part one

By Ainslie Pierrynoswki (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow) 

In this two part series, I’ll examine several of the key factors behind the biotechnology sector’s success in Atlantic Canada—and what lessons they hold for other industries in the region.

In Atlantic Canada, biotechnology is booming. The term biotechnology refers to products or processes created using living organisms or biological systems. In the case of Atlantic Canada, the region boasts more than 100 bioscience companies and 25 research organizations, which generate over $300 million per year in private sector revenues. At a time when many communities and industries in the region face continued economic challenges, what lessons can Atlantic Canada’s entrepreneurs draw from the biotechnology sector?

Bridge the gap between research and commercialization

Innovation is not a mere buzzword. Industries such as digital technology, biotechnology, and automated transportation systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated and profitable. As this report from the Council of Canadian Academies notes, countries which fail to develop new ideas, processes, and technologies in their industrial, scientific, and technological sectors “risk becoming unable to participate in world-leading research and equally unable to reap its eventual social and economic benefits.” Although Canada’s universities and research organizations have a strong output, the country’s overall investment in research and development is sorely lacking compared to other developed countries and emerging economies, such as China and India. Further, Canada often struggles to translate research and development into profitable products and services.

Atlantic Canada’s biotechnology sector, however, provides a prime example of how companies can bridge the gap between research and commercialization. Biotechnology firms across the region have drawn on Atlantic Canada’s 17 universities and the specialized research institutes therein. Halifax-based biotechnology firm Immunovaccine, Inc., for instance, started out as a partnership between entrepreneur Brian Lowe and then-Dean of Science at Dalhousie Richard Kimmins.

As a matter of fact, Atlantic Canada is home to Natural Products Canada, one of only two biotechnology firms in the country to be designated Centres for Excellence in Commercialization and Research. The company maintains multiple partnerships with research organizations, as well as technology and commercialization experts, in Atlantic Canada and beyond.

In the words of PEI BioAlliance CEO Rory Franics, “It’s not enough just to do the research. There’s a lot of discipline and a lot of understanding required to make this economically impactful.” Atlantic Canada’s biotechnology sector seems to have these qualities in spades. As a matter of fact, innovations in biotechnology are helping to revitalize traditional industries, as recounted below:

Build on—and innovate—existing industries

A number of biotechnology firms in the region are injecting innovation into existing industries such as forestry, fishery, and agriculture. For example, Maritime Innovation uses analytics and scientific data regarding tree genomics to help the forestry sector grow larger and stronger trees. Moreover, Seagrave noted that similar data analysis programs in the fisheries sector have the potential to make the fish processing industry in Atlantic Canada more efficient and competitive. Given Atlantic Canada’s continued reliance on traditional, seasonal industries, new companies and established industries need to follow the biotechnology industry’s lead and develop a symbiotic relationship—one which finds common ground between the old and the new. In essence, the biotechnology sector’s experiences shows how we can breathe new life into established industries facing economic challenges.

When it comes to the biotechnology sector’s success in Atlantic Canada, there remains much more to unpack. The second and final part of this brief series will delve into how biotechnology firms are forging international connections, pursuing partnerships, and facilitating economic diversification—and why all of that matters.


Canada & U.S Trade War

By Patrick O’Brien (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow) 

The trade war amongst Canada and the United States is beginning to gain momentum as Canada slaps counter-tariffs on steel and aluminium products being shipped in from the U.S. Canada announced on July 1st the implementation of the same tariffs by percentage on steel and aluminum products at 25 percent and 10 percent respectively, and a list of other goods that would be tariffed at 10 percent similarly. The list of counter-tariffs was designed to have the same dollar per dollar affect as the U.S tariffs on Canada and was not very different from the action other Countries took such as Mexico, Turkey, and Europe.

What is the U.S trying to accomplish with these tariffs on many Countries including Canada? Essentially by implementing large tariffs on Steel and Aluminum this allows for the U.S produced metals to become more desirable, as they now cost relatively 25 percent (10 percent for aluminum) less than their foreign competition. This kind of protectionist policies hurt both sides of the economy. At a time when the situation around NAFTA is uncertain (as described in previous articles) implementing tariffs on your trade partner doesn’t help negotiations, especially when there was no discussion prior to.

In a recent conference in Winnipeg, U.S politicians met with Canadians to find regional trade solutions that can be taken to resolve/counteract the new tariffs. During the conference, Martin Nelson who is a Democrat in the North Dakota house representative states that “Americans are feeling the effects of the counter-tariffs not only through a higher cost of steel and aluminum, but also in the other goods such as food products that Canada rolled out tariffs against the U.S. Farmers in Western U.S would also feel the of the tariffs, more specifically those who are in debt to the banks that finance their operations. They may have to sell crop to at lower prices to meet bank capital stipulations and suffer large losses.

New discussions are also arising from the Trump administration about a possible 25 percent tariff on vehicles imported from Canada. This is one of the largest concerns for Canada, as it would almost completely decimate the Canadian auto Industry. Analysis conducted by the University of British Columbia concludes that failure to maintain a NAFTA agreement would lead to a 30 to 40 percent decline in the Canadian auto industry. This is not including the possibility of a 25 percent tariff as described above. Alternatively, the U.S would also be affected by imposing an auto tariff on Canada, as auto parts are shipped back and forth across U.S-Canadian border many times over to complete production of the car. If the U.S were to tariff the Canadian auto industry, then a counter-tariff would only make sense to compete. This would result in higher costs in the industry, loss of jobs, manufacturing plant shutdowns, and ultimately the consumer would be at a lose due as this would translate to a substantially higher cost of cars.

In conclusion, we as Canadians realise that something must be done to compete with the U.S economy, whether that is looking for opportunities abroad in Europe or Asia (thereby increasing our bargaining power) while simultaneously coming to an agreement with the U.S on fair trade practices that benefit both parties.

Education, training, and labour in Atlantic Canada: The big picture

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow)

In my previous AIMS On Campus op-eds regarding K-12 education in Atlantic Canada, I tended to focus on specific issue areas. For instance, I wrote about the value of e-learning in the region’s education systems. I also examined the fate of disused school buildings following school closures. Yet, while following discussions about the future of K-12 education in Atlantic Canada, I found that many debates regarding how schools in the region ought to function stemmed from one concern in particular. In Atlantic Canada—and, indeed, across the country—there exists an underlying tension within the public K-12 education system. On one hand, schools seek to deliver the same, shared experience to students. They hold students to agreed-upon standards: report cards, exams, grades, learning outcomes, behavioural expectations, and so on. They grant graduating students diplomas that have a widely understood meaning—and value—for employers and post-secondary institutions. At the same time, however, accommodating students with varying learning needs, interests, and career ambitions has become increasingly integral to how schools function.

This core trade-off between standardization and individualization informs a number of questions faced by educators, policymakers, and parents in Atlantic Canada. To what extent should parents and students be able to choose a course of study and personalize their education, and to what extent should school curricula set course requirements and standards? How can schools respond to calls to offer additional program requirements perceived to be relevant to the post-graduation world, such as career studies, coding, language courses, and more, while also taking heed of cries for a “back to the basics approach,” focused on nailing down the fundamentals of key subjects like mathematics and language arts? How can curriculum developers establish common, meaningful grading requirements while also challenging academically-inclined students and assisting students with learning difficulties?

Fortunately, several promising educational initiatives—many from Atlantic Canada, and a few from further afield—can provide insight into how schools could negotiate this balance and deliver even more relevant, engaging, and useful learning experiences to all.

Expand and standardize learning experiences beyond the classroom

A number of high schools across Atlantic Canada offer co-operative (“co-op”) education programs. Students enrolled in these courses complete a placement with the partner employer of their choice over a set time period, often for academic credit. This immersive learning experience can benefit students with a variety of academic, career, and personal goals. For example, the hands-on approach of a co-op placement can help to engage tactile learners. Co-op can also enable students to “test drive” a prospective career and afford students learning opportunities virtually impossible to access in a classroom setting—whether one seeks to work in the trades, health services, policing, or another field entirely. Co-op also provides students with advantages are pertinent to Atlantic Canada schools’ mission to prepare students to enter the labour force. That is, co-op entails firsthand experience in the workplace before graduation as well as valuable skills like resume- and cover letter-writing, interview techniques, and goal-setting. Nonetheless, co-op curricula and placement offerings can vary from province to province, or even from school to school. Therefore, educational jurisdictions in Atlantic Canada should expand co-op programs to more schools and seek out partnerships in a greater variety of professional fields, particularly when it comes to smaller or more isolated schools. They should also establish common inter-provincial and inter-scholastic standards regarding co-op learning outcomes, grading, and training before, during, and after placements. (Nova Scotia’s Options and Opportunities (O2) program provides one compelling model for a region-wide co-op program.) By doing so, schools can deliver a learning experience tailored to students’ needs and ambitions, in the context of Atlantic Canada’s labour market, while simultaneously providing a uniform, transferable qualification to those who complete the program.

Pursue tuition support programs

In the words of AIMS Schoolhouse Consulting Director Dr. Paul Bennett, the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP) affords some students with learning challenges “a vitally important educational lifeline.” The TSP provides students who cannot be served by their local public schools with the financial means to attend specialized schools. The TSP is a prime example of how education systems can grant students individualized learning experiences while ensuring that these experiences remain accessible to all. In a recent AIMS report, Dr. Bennett wrote that since its establishment in 2004 the TSP has enjoyed substantial success in meeting recipient students’ personal and academic needs. For provinces which lack similar tuition support programs, such as New Brunswick, the TSP could prove transferable. According to Dr. Bennett, a New Brunswick TSP could, if adopted, prove advantageous for the province’s 1 000 children who could benefit from specialized schools like Moncton’s Riverbend Community School.

Utilize inquiry-based learning

The term inquiry-based learning (ILB) may, initially, prompt skepticism, particularly in the wake of failed “educational fads.” ILB, however, stems from a substantial body of academic theory and empirical research. While the concept has a number of variations, inquiry-based learning is essentially a teaching method where an educator uses students’ initial questions, ideas, and observations about the subject at hand to structure the learning process, guiding students through problem-solving, debate, evidence-gathering, and, eventually, learning something new. Although putting ILB into practice is not without its challenges, the process nonetheless serves to sustain a balance between a personalized approach to education and a standardized one. Specifically, ILB enables students to delve more deeply into aspects of the curriculum which interest them or to focus on elements which they find confusing, while teaching all students valuable research and critical-thinking skills (capabilities which are especially important in the information age). ILB has been adapted to suit a variety of age groups and school subjects in classrooms around the world. Indeed, ILB was recently implemented in Ontario’s kindergarten classrooms.

Offer programs with international recognition

Finally, specialized programs with international standards allow students to pursue niche interests or meet their individual academic needs, while also earning a widely recognized qualification. Examples include the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) programs, offered at multiple schools in each of the Atlantic provinces. These programs deliver rigorous, internationally recognized curricula. The IB’s high school-level diploma program even affords graduating students academic credits at multiple universities around the world. Students seeking an academic challenges could also look to the Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered at some Atlantic Canada high schools. On a smaller scale, language tests like the French DELF/DALF provide a common measure of achievement. Therefore, Atlantic Canada schools should look to expanding their existing offerings of such programs, or even look into additional globally recognized programs with their own unique course content and benefits, like the International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE) for 14 to 16 year-olds.

Ultimately, grappling with the questions and debates which surround Atlantic Canada’s K-12 schools requires a close look at the tensions within K-12 education itself. The aforementioned measures, models, and examples from the region—and beyond—provide ample ways for policymakers, educators, and parents to move forward.