Biotech….It’s Personal

Originally published in Biotechnology Focus Magazine, March 2013.

By Rob Henderson, President, BioTalent Canada.

In December of last year, one of my colleagues related an encounter he had one evening on his way home from work.

He had ventured into one of the local Shawarma take-out spots downtown and had engaged one of the restaurant’s staff in a casual discussion. He discovered the man was in fact a physician from Iraq, who had come to Canada in the hopes of practicing medicine and starting a new life for his family here. Unfortunately for him, his dream had to wait, as his application for licensure as a physician would take several years to complete and was by no means a guarantee.

As a result, this Iraqi physician was working as a cook in the establishment , and while still a noble undertaking, it was not the one for which he had trained.

My colleague then expanded on the potential of examining an alternative career path, the Bio-economy, which could utilize his scientific skills, and might even make a better, more fulfilling living for him and his family.

His response was one of gratitude, relief, joy, and surprise. It was as if no one had ever taken the time to demonstrate career alternatives to this man.

Fast forward to January of 2013, where the parents of a ten-year old boy named Cameron wait as he is rushed to the ICU of a local Children’s Hospital, suffering from acute keto-acidosis, a result of undiagnosed Type 1 Diabetes. They slowly realize their lives are about to be unalterably changed to a regimen of numerous blood tests, strictly monitored diets and daily insulin injections.

How are the two stories related?

When Canadian Frederick Banting discovered insulin in 1921 he had no idea that by 2011 Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes would affect over 285 million people globally (according to the Canadian Diabetes Association).

People throughout Canada have personal experience with cab drivers, pizza deliverers and countless other service industries where internationally educated Doctors, Nurses, Veterinarians and Pharmacists earn a living, having failed or waiting to get licensed in their chosen profession in Canada. Wouldn’t their scientific skills be better utilized and contribute more to the Canadian economy if they were presented with alternative careers in the BioEconomy, contributing to Canada’s world-standing in Diabetes and other fields of research?

Preliminary findings of the 2013 BioTalent Canada Labour Market Intelligence Study indicate:

  • 35 % of biotech companies responded stated their greatest recruitment challenge was attracting candidates with the skills they require;
  • 42% of those stated that the lack of required skills presented a MAJOR impact to the organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

As a country in which immigration is a national priority and where industry will depend more upon it as the driving force to fuel the many Canadian economic verticals, we simply MUST get better at steering educated immigrants toward bio-industries and regions where they can make a substantive contribution and utilize the education and skills they already possess.

If we fail to do so, not only will the BioEconomy stall, we will fall behind in the competitive international battle that will determine future success for all countries– the battle for skilled labour.

Biotechnology is personal to so many, yet it is easy to lose sight of the faces of the industry. Canadian science benefits the lives of so many, but many of us entrenched in the industry often forget the tangible human impact.

The stories of the physician cook and the diabetic child need to resonate, like the human faces that form part of Rx&D’s recent “Living Proof” marketing campaign. These stories bring home the importance of the human resources we need in order to benefit the Canadians we serve.

I have recently realized I am indeed fortunate, because now I am reminded every day of the need for proper expertise in the Bio-Economy and in disease research.

My son’s name is Cameron and he’s diabetic.