Category Archives: intellectual property

The coolest paint

It’s the ‘est’ of it all. The coolest, the whitest, the blackest … Scientists and artists are both pursuing the ‘est’. (More about the pursuit later in this posting.)

In this case, scientists have developed the coolest, whitest paint yet. From an April 16, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

In an effort to curb global warming, Purdue University engineers have created the whitest paint yet. Coating buildings with this paint may one day cool them off enough to reduce the need for air conditioning, the researchers say.

In October [2020], the team created an ultra-white paint that pushed limits on how white paint can be. Now they’ve outdone that. The newer paint not only is whiter but also can keep surfaces cooler than the formulation that the researchers had previously demonstrated.

“If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.

Caption: Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab’s sample of the whitest paint on record. Credit: Purdue University/Jared Pike

This is nicely done. Researcher Xiulin Ruan is standing close to a structure that could be said to resemble the sun while in shirtsleeves and sunglasses and holding up a sample of his whitest paint in April (not usually a warm month in Indiana).

An April 15, 2021 Purdue University news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work and hints about its commercial applications both civilian and military,

The researchers believe that this white may be the closest equivalent of the blackest black, “Vantablack,” [emphasis mine; see comments later in this post] which absorbs up to 99.9% of visible light. The new whitest paint formulation reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight – compared with the 95.5% of sunlight reflected by the researchers’ previous ultra-white paint – and sends infrared heat away from a surface at the same time.

Typical commercial white paint gets warmer rather than cooler. Paints on the market that are designed to reject heat reflect only 80%-90% of sunlight and can’t make surfaces cooler than their surroundings.

The team’s research paper showing how the paint works publishes Thursday (April 15 [2021]) as the cover of the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

What makes the whitest paint so white

Two features give the paint its extreme whiteness. One is the paint’s very high concentration of a chemical compound called barium sulfate [emphasis mine] which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics white.

“We looked at various commercial products, basically anything that’s white,” said Xiangyu Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on this project as a Purdue Ph.D. student in Ruan’s lab. “We found that using barium sulfate, you can theoretically make things really, really reflective, which means that they’re really, really white.”

The second feature is that the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes in the paint. How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, so a wider range of particle sizes allows the paint to scatter more of the light spectrum from the sun.

“A high concentration of particles that are also different sizes gives the paint the broadest spectral scattering, which contributes to the highest reflectance,” said Joseph Peoples, a Purdue Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

There is a little bit of room to make the paint whiter, but not much without compromising the paint.”Although a higher particle concentration is better for making something white, you can’t increase the concentration too much. The higher the concentration, the easier it is for the paint to break or peel off,” Li said.

How the whitest paint is also the coolest

The paint’s whiteness also means that the paint is the coolest on record. Using high-accuracy temperature reading equipment called thermocouples, the researchers demonstrated outdoors that the paint can keep surfaces 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings at night. It can also cool surfaces 8 degrees Fahrenheit below their surroundings under strong sunlight during noon hours.

The paint’s solar reflectance is so effective, it even worked in the middle of winter. During an outdoor test with an ambient temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the paint still managed to lower the sample temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

This white paint is the result of six years of research building on attempts going back to the 1970s to develop radiative cooling paint as a feasible alternative to traditional air conditioners.

Ruan’s lab had considered over 100 different materials, narrowed them down to 10 and tested about 50 different formulations for each material. Their previous whitest paint was a formulation made of calcium carbonate, an earth-abundant compound commonly found in rocks and seashells.

The researchers showed in their study that like commercial paint, their barium sulfate-based paint can potentially handle outdoor conditions. The technique that the researchers used to create the paint also is compatible with the commercial paint fabrication process.

Patent applications for this paint formulation have been filed through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. This research was supported by the Cooling Technologies Research Center at Purdue University and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research [emphasis mine] through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (Grant No.427 FA9550-17-1-0368). The research was performed at Purdue’s FLEX Lab and Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and the Birck Nanotechnology Center of Purdue’s Discovery Park.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Ultrawhite BaSO4 Paints and Films for Remarkable Daytime Subambient Radiative Cooling by Xiangyu Li, Joseph Peoples, Peiyan Yao, and Xiulin Ruan. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.1c02368 Publication Date:April 15, 2021 © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vantablack and the ongoing ‘est’ of blackest

Vantablack’s 99.9% light absorption no longer qualifies it for the ‘blackest black’. A newer standard for the ‘blackest black’ was set by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology at 99.99% light absorption with its N.I.S.T. ultra-black in 2019, although that too seems to have been bested.

I have three postings covering the Vantablack and blackest black story,

The third posting (December 2019) provides a brief summary of the story along with what was the latest from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. There’s also a little bit about the ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ an art piece demonstrating the blackest black material from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they state has 99.995% (at least) absorption of light.

From a science perspective, the blackest black would be useful for space exploration.

I am surprised there doesn’t seem to have been an artistic rush to work with the whitest white. That impression may be due to the fact that the feuds get more attention than quiet work.

Dark side to the whitest white?

Andrew Parnell, research fellow in physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield (UK), mentions a downside to obtaining the material needed to produce this cooling white paint in a June 10, 2021 essay on The Conversation (h/t Fast Company), Note: Links have been removed,

… this whiter-than-white paint has a darker side. The energy required to dig up raw barite ore to produce and process the barium sulphite that makes up nearly 60% of the paint means it has a huge carbon footprint. And using the paint widely would mean a dramatic increase in the mining of barium.

Parnell ends his essay with this (Note: Links have been removed),

Barium sulphite-based paint is just one way to improve the reflectivity of buildings. I’ve spent the last few years researching the colour white in the natural world, from white surfaces to white animals. Animal hairs, feathers and butterfly wings provide different examples of how nature regulates temperature within a structure. Mimicking these natural techniques could help to keep our cities cooler with less cost to the environment.

The wings of one intensely white beetle species called Lepidiota stigma appear a strikingly bright white thanks to nanostructures in their scales, which are very good at scattering incoming light. This natural light-scattering property can be used to design even better paints: for example, by using recycled plastic to create white paint containing similar nanostructures with a far lower carbon footprint. When it comes to taking inspiration from nature, the sky’s the limit.

Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?

I started writing this in the aftermath of the 2021 Canadian federal budget when most of the action (so far) occurred but if you keep going to the end of this post you’ll find updates for Precision Nanosystems and AcCellera and a few extra bits. Also, you may want to check out my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan and some of the ‘rough and tumble’ of the biotechnology scene in BC/Canada. Now, onto my analysis of the life sciences public relations campaign in British Columbia.

Gordon Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article (also in print on May 8, 2021) about the British Columbia (mostly in Vancouver) biotechnology scene in the Vancouver Sun is the starting point for this story.

His entry (whether the reporter realizes it or not) into a communications (or public relations) campaign spanning federal, provincial, and municipal jurisdictions is well written and quite informative. While it’s tempting to attribute the whole thing to a single evil genius or mastermind in answer to the question posed in the head, the ‘campaign’ is likely a targeted effort by one or more groups and individuals enhanced with a little luck.

Federal and provincial money for life sciences and technology

The Business Council of British Columbia’s April 22, 2021 Federal & B.C. Budgets 2021 Analysis (PDF), notes this in its Highlights section,

•Another priority reflected in both budgets is boosting innovation and accelerating the growth of technology-producing companies. The federal budget [April 19, 2021] is spending billions more to support the life sciences and bio-manufacturing industry, clean technologies, the development of electric vehicles, the aerospace sector, quantum computing, AI, genomics, and digital technologies, among others.

•B.C.’s budget [April 20, 2021] also provides funding to spur innovation, support the technology sector and grow locally-based companies. In this area the main item is the new InBC Investment Corporation [emphasis mine], first announced last summer. Endowed with $500 million financed via an agency loan, the Corporation will establish a fund to invest in growing and “anchoring” high-growth [emphasis mine] B.C. businesses.

Their in-depth analysis does not provide more detail about the life sciences investments in the 2021 Canadian federal budget or the 2021 BC provincial budget.

My May 4, 2021 posting details many of the Canadian federal investments in life sciences and other technology areas of interest. The 2021 BC budget announcement is so vague, it didn’t merit much more than this mention until now.

InBC Investment Corporation (BC’s contribution)

InBC Investment Corporation was set up on or about April 27, 2021 as three news ‘references’ (brief summaries with a link) suggest: InBC Investment Corp. Act, InBC Announcement, $500-million investment fund paves way for StrongerBC.

While the corporation does not have a specific mandate to fund the biotechnology sector, given the current enthusiasm, it’s easy to believe they might be more inclined to fund them than not, regardless of any expertise they or may not have specifically in that field.

Of most interest to me was InBC’s Board of Directors, which I tracked down to a BC Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation May 6, 2021 news release,

InBC Investment Corp. now has a full board of directors with backgrounds in finance, economics, impact investing and business to provide strategic guidance and accountability for the new Crown corporation.

InBC will support startups [emphasis mine], help promising companies scale up and work with a “triple bottom line” mandate that considers people, the planet and profits, to position British Columbia as a front-runner in the post-pandemic economy.

Christine Bergeron, president and chief executive officer of Vancity, will serve as the new board chair of InBC Investment Corp. The nine-member board of directors is made up of both public and private sector members who are responsible for oversight of the corporation, including its mission, policies and goals.

The InBC board members were selected through a comprehensive process, guided by the principles of the Crown Agencies and Board Resourcing Office. Candidates with a variety of relevant backgrounds were considered to form a strong board consisting of seven women and two men. The members appointed represent diversity as well as appropriate areas of expertise.

The following people were selected as members on the board of directors:

  • Christine Bergeron, president and CEO, Vancity
  • Kevin Campbell, managing director of investment banking, board of directors, Haywood Securities
  • Ingrid Leong, VP finance for JH Investments and chief investment officer, Houssian Foundation
  • Glen Lougheed, serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor
  • Suzanne Trottier, vice-president of Indigenous trust services, First Nations Bank Trust
  • Carole James, former minister of finance and deputy premier, Government of British Columbia
  • Iglika Ivanova, senior economist, public interest researcher, BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Bobbi Plecas, deputy minister, B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation
  • Heather Wood, deputy minister, B.C.’s Ministry of Finance

Legislation to provide the governance framework for InBC was introduced by the legislative assembly on April 27, 2021.

Board experience at growing a startup?

This group of people doesn’t seem to have a shred of experience with startups. Glen Lougheed’s “serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor” description means nothing to me and the description he provides in his LinkedIn profile doesn’t clear up matters,

I am a product and business development professional with an entrepreneurial attitude and strong technical skills. I have been building companies both mine and others since I was a teenager.

Having looked up the two companies for which he is currently acting as Chief Executive Officer, Lougheed’s interest appears to be focused on the use of ‘big data’ in marketing and communications campaigns.

Perhaps startup experience isn’t necessary since the board has been appointed to do this (from the BC Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation May 6, 2021 news release; click on the Backgrounder),

Responsibilities of the InBC Investment Corp. board of directors

The board of directors will be responsible for oversight of the management of the affairs of the corporation. This includes:

  • selecting and approving the chief executive officer and chief innovation officer and monitoring performance and accountabilities;
  • reviewing and approving annual corporate financial statements;
  • oversight of policies that relate to InBC’s mandate and holding the executive to account for its accountabilities with respect to InBC’s mandate;
  • oversight of InBC’s operations; and
  • selection and appointment of InBC’s auditor.

Relationships

So, we have two government civil servants, Wood (Deputy Minister of B.C.’s Ministry of Finance) and Plecas (Deputy Minister of B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation), and James, a BC Minister of Finance, who left the job several months ago. Then we have Lougheed, recently resigned (May 2021) as special advisor on innovation and technology to the BC Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation.

It would seem almost half of this new board is or has been affiliated with the government and, likely, know each other.

I expect there are more relationships to be found but my interest is in the overall picture as it pertains to the biotechnology scene. This board (except possibly for Lougheed) does not seem to have any experience in the biotechnology sector or growing any sort of startup business in any technology field.

Presumably, the new chief executive officer (CEO) and new chief innovation officer (CIO) will have some of the necessary experience. Still, biotechnology isn’t the same as digital technology, an area where the BC technology community is quite strong. (The Canadian federal government’s Digital Technology Supercluster is headquartered in BC.)

I imagine the politics around who gets hired as CEO and as CIO will be quite interesting.

See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for more mention of this ‘secretive’ government corporation.

The BC biotech gorillas

AbCellera was BC’s biggest biotech story in 2020/21 (see my Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist post from December 30, 2020 for more. Do check out the subsection titled “Avo Media …” for a look at an unexpectedly interlaced relationship). Note: The AbCellera COVID-19 treatment is not a vaccine or a vaccine delivery system.

It was a bit surprising that Acuitas Therapeutics didn’t get more attention although Hoekstra seems to have addressed that shortcoming in his May 7, 2021 article by using Thomas Madden and Acuitas as the hook for the story,

By early 2020, concern was mounting about a new, deadly coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China.

The World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency just days before. There had been more than 400 deaths and more than 20,000 cases, most of those in China.

But the virus was spreading around the world. Deaths had occurred in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and the virus had been detected in the U.S. and Canada.

By early January of 2020, scientists in China had already sequenced the virus’s genome and made it public, allowing scientists to begin the research for a vaccine.

Scientists expected that could take years.

But, as a second case was confirmed in B.C. in early February, Thomas Madden, a world-renowned expert in nanotechnology who heads Vancouver-based biotech company Acuitas Therapeutics, flew to Germany. [emphases mine]

Acuitas was in the business of creating lipid nanoparticles, microscopic biological vehicles that could deliver drugs [emphasis mine] — for example, to specifically target cancers in the body.

Scientists are already beginning to say it’s likely that a booster vaccine will be needed [emphasis mine] next year to deal with the virus variants.

Madden, the head of Acuitas, says it makes absolute sense to use the new biotechnology, for example, the use of messenger RNA vaccines, to prepare and fight future pandemics.

Says Madden [emphasis mine]: “The technology in terms of what it’s able to do is absolutely phenomenal. It’s just taken us 40 years to get here.”

So, Hoekstra reminds us of the international nature and urgency of the crisis, then, introduces Acuitas as a vital and local player in solutions deployed internationally, and, finally, brings us back to Acuitas after providing an overview of the BC biotech scene and the federal and provincial government’s latest moves,

AbCellera Biologics is more of a supporting player, along with a number of other companies, in Hoekstra’s story,

Sandwiched in the middle, you’ll find what I think is the point of the story,

LifeSciences BC and the provincial government’s commitments

From Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article,

The importance of the biotech sector in providing protection against pandemics has caught the attention of the federal and B.C. governments. It has also been noticed by the private markets.

In its budget [April 19, 2021] earlier this month [sic], the federal government promised more than $2 billion in the next seven years to support “promising” life sciences and bio-manufacturing firms, research, training, education and vaccine candidates.

Some companies, including Precision NanoSystems, have already got federal funding. The Vancouver company received $18.2 million last year to help develop its self-replicating mRNA vaccine and another $25 million in early 2021 to assist building a $50-million facility to produce the vaccine.

Last fall, Symvivo received $2.8 million from the National Research Council to help develop its oral COVID-19 vaccine.

AbCellera has also received a pledge of $175.6 million to help build an accredited manufacturing facility in Vancouver [emphasis mine] to produce antibody treatments.

AbCellera expects to double its 230-person workforce over the next two years as it expands its Vancouver campus.

When AbCellera became a publicly traded company late last year, it raised more than $500 million and had a recent market capitalization, the value of its stock, of about $8.5 billion.

When the B.C. government delivered its throne speech recently, the contribution of the province’s life sciences sector in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighted, with Precision NanoSystems, AbCellera and StarFish Medical getting mentions. “Their work will not only help bring us out of the pandemic, it will position our province for success in the years ahead,” said B.C.’s Lt. Gov. Jane Austen in delivering the throne speech.

When the budget was released the following week [April 20, 2021], B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson said a new three-year, $500-million strategic investment fund would help support and scale up tech firms.

Despite their successes, B.C. biotech firms have faced challenges.

SaNOtize had to go to the U.K. to get support for clinical trials and AbCellera has been disappointed that despite Health Canada emergency approval of its COVID-19 treatment, provinces have been reluctant to use Bamlanivimab.

Hansen, AbCellera’s CEO and a former University of B.C. professor with a PhD in applied physics and biotechnology, said he believes that biotech is the most important frontier of technology.

In the past, while great science was launched from B.C.’s universities, not as great a job was done on turning that science into innovation, jobs [emphasis mine] and the capacity to bring new products to market, possibly because of a lack of entrepreneurship and polices to make it more attractive to companies to grow and thrive here and move here, notes Hansen.

Hurlburt [Wendy Hurlburt], the LifeSciences B.C. CEO, says that policies, including tax structure and patenting [emphasis mine], that encourages innovation companies are needed to support the biotech sector.

But, adds Hansen: “Here in Vancouver, I feel like we’re turning the corner. There’s probably never been a time when Vancouver’s biotech sector [emphasis mine] was stronger. And the future looks very good.”

Not only is the province involved but so is the City of Vancouver (more about that in a bit).

It’s not all about the cash

Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article helped answer a question I had in the title of another posting, January 22, 2021: Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper? (See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for more to the answer.)

This campaign has been building for a while. In the “Is it magic or how does the federal budget get developed? subsection of my May 4, 2021 posting on the 2021 Canadian federal budget I speculated a little bit,

I believe most of the priorities are set by power players behind the scenes. We glimpsed some of the dynamics courtesy of the WE Charity scandal 2020/21 and the SNC-Lavalin scandal in 2019.

Access to special meetings and encounters are not likely to be given to any member of the ‘great unwashed’ but we do get to see the briefs that are submitted in anticipation of a new budget. These briefs and meetings with witnesses are available on the Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance (FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

AbCellera submitted a brief dated August 7, 2020 (PDF) detailing how they would like to see the Income Tax Act amended. It’s not always about getting cash, although that’s very important. In this brief, the company wants “… improved access to the enhanced Scientific Research & Experimental Development tax credit.”

There are many aspects to these campaigns including the federal Income Tax Act and, in this case, municipal involvement.

Vancouver (city government) and the biotech sector

About five weeks prior to the 2021 Canadian federal budget and BC provincial budget announcements, there was some news from the City of Vancouver (from a March 10, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan for dailyhive.com), Note: Links have been removed,

Major expansion plans are abound for AbCellera over the next few years to the extent that the Vancouver-based biotechnology company is now looking to build a massive purpose-built office and medical laboratory campus in Mount Pleasant (Vancouver neighbourhood).

It would be a redevelopment of the entire city block …

… earlier today, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a rezoning enquiry allowing city staff to work with the proponent and accept a formal application for review.

This special additional pre-application step is required due to the temporary ban [emphasis mine] on most types of rezonings within the Broadway Plan’s planning area, until the plan is finalized at the end of 2021.

But city staff are willing to make this a rare exception due to the economic opportunity [emphasis mine] presented by the proposal and the healthcare-related aspects.

“The reasons for advancing this quickly are they are rapidly growing and would like to stay in Vancouver, and we would like them to… We’re very glad to have this company in Vancouver and want to provide them with a permanent home, but in order to scale up, the timeframe to produce their therapy [for viruses] is really time sensitive,” Gil Kelley, the chief urban planner of the City of Vancouver, told city council during today’s [March 10, 2021] meeting.

….

Roughly 10 days after the 2021 budgets are announced, there’s this from Kenneth Chan’s April 29,2021 article on dailyhive.com,

Plans for AbCellera Biologics’ major footprint expansion in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant Industrial Area are moving forward quickly.

Based on the application submitted this week, the Vancouver-based biotechnology company is proposing to redevelop 110 West 4th Avenue …

It will be designated as the rapidly growing company’s global headquarters.

… city staff are providing AbCellera with the highly rare, expedited stream of combining the rezoning and development application processes into one.

By the middle of this decade, AbCellera will have four locations in the area, including its current 21,000 sq ft office at 2215 Yukon Street and a new 44,000 sq ft office nearing completion at 2131 Manitoba Street, just south of its future main hub.

“We’re building state-of-the-art facilities in Vancouver to accelerate the development of new antibody therapies with biotech and pharma partners from around the world,” said Carl Hansen, CEO and president of AbCellera, in a statement.

AbCellera has gained significant international attention over the past year after it co-developed the first authorized COVID-19 antibody therapy for emergency use in high-risk patients in Canada and the United States.

In late 2020, the company closed a successful initial public offering, bringing in $556 million after selling nearly 28 million shares, far exceeding its original goal of raising $250 million. It was the largest-ever IPO [initial public offering] by a Canadian biotech company.

“We see this new site as a creative hub for engineers, software developers, data scientists, biologists and bioinformaticians to collaborate, innovate, and push the frontiers of technology.” [said Veronique Lecault, the COO of AbCellera]

Additionally, AbCellera is also planning to build a clinical-grade, antibody manufacturing facility in Metro Vancouver, funded in part by the $176-million investment it received from the federal government in Spring 2020 [see May 3, 2020 AbCellera news release].

Not cash but AbCellera did get an expedited process for rezoning and I imagine there will be more special treatment as this progresses. (See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for news about the expedited process.)

It’s likely there are other companies in the BC’s life science sector that are eyeing this development with great interest and high hopes for themselves.

What it takes

COVID-19 seems to have galvanized interest and support almost everywhere in the world for life sciences.

I don’t believe that anyone in the life sciences planned for or rejoiced at news of this pandemic. However, the Canadian biotech sector has been working for decades to establish itself as an important economic resource. and, sadly, COVID-19 has been a timely development.

All those years of lobbying, also known as, government relations, marketing, investor relations, public relations and more served as preparation for what looks like a concerted effort and it has paid off in BC at the federal level, provincial level, and municipal level (at least one).

The campaigns continue. Here’s Wendy Hurlburt, president and CEO of LifeSciences BC in a May 14, 2021 Conversations That Matter Vancouver Sun podcast with Stuart McNish. Note: Hurlburt makes an odd comment at about the 7 min. 30 secs. mark regarding insulin and patents.

Her dismay over lost opportunities regarding the insulin patent is right in line with Canada’s current patent mania. See my May 13, 2021 posting, Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. As far as I’m aware, Canada’s stance has not changed. Interestingly, Hoekstra’s article doesn’t mention COVID-19 patent waivers.

By contrast, here’s what Frederick Banting (one of the discoverers) had to say about his patent, (from the Banting House Insulin Patents webpage),

About the sale of the patent of insulin for $1 Banting reportedly said, “Insulin belongs to the world, not to me.”

… On January 23rd, 1923 Banting, [Charles] Best, and [James] Collip were awarded the American patents for insulin which they sold to the University of Toronto for $1.00 each.

Hurlburt goes on to express dismay over taxes and notes that some companies may leave for other jurisdictions, which means we will lose ‘innovation’. This is a very common ploy coming from any of the technology sectors and can be dated back at least 30 years.

Unmentioned is the dream/business model that so many Canadian tech entrepreneurs have: grow the company, sell it for a lot of money, and retire, preferably before the age of 40.

Getting back to my point, the current situation is not attributable to one individual or to one company’s efforts or to one life science nonprofit or to one federal Network Centre for Excellence (NanoMedicines Innovation Network [NMIN] located at the University of British Columbia).

Note: I have more about the NMIN and Acuitas Therapeutics in a November 12, 2021 posting and there’s more about NMIN’s 7th annual conference and a very high profile guest in a September 11, 2020 posting.

Strategy at the federal, provincial, and local governments, with an eye to the international scene, has been augmented by luck and opportunism.

Updates and extras

Where updates are concerned I have one for Precision Nanosystems and one for AbCellera. I have extras with regard to Moderna and Canada and, BC’s special fund, inBC Investment Corporation. For anyone who’s curious about Banting and the high cost of insulin, I have a couple of links to further reading.

Precision Nanosystems

From an August 11, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan (Note: Links have been removed),

A homegrown pharmaceutical company has announced plans to significantly scale its operations with the opening of a new production facility in Vancouver’s False Creek Flats.

The new Evolution Block building will contain PNI’s new global headquarters and a new genetic medicine Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) biomanufacturing centre, which would allow the company to expand its capabilities to include the clinical manufacturing of RNA vaccines and therapeutics.

Federal funding totalling $25.1 million for PNI was first announced in February 2021 towards covering part of the development costs of such a facility, as part of the federal government’s new strategy to better ensure Canada has the domestic capacity to secure its own COVID-19 vaccines and prepare the country for future pandemics. It is estimated the vaccine production capacity of the new facility will be 240 million doses annually.

PNI’s location in the False Creek Flats is strategic, given the close proximity to the new St. Paul’s Hospital campus and the growing concentration of tech and healthcare-based industrial businesses.

AbCellera

From a June 22, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan (Note: Links have been removed),

The rapidly growing Vancouver-based biotechnology company announced this morning their 130,000 sq ft Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility will be located on a two-acre site at the 900 block of Evans Avenue, replacing the Urban Beach volleyball courts just next to the City of Vancouver’s Evans maintenance centre and the Regional Recycling Vancouver Bottle Depot.

GMP is partially funded by the $175 million in federal funding received by the company last year to support research into coronavirus treatment.

GMP adds to AbCellera’s major plans to build a new headquarters in close proximity at 110-150 West 4th Avenue in the Mount Pleasant Industrial Area — a city block-sized campus with a total of 380,000 sq ft of laboratory and office space for research and corporate uses.

Both campus buildings are being reviewed under the City of Vancouver’s rare streamlined, expedited process [emphasis mine] of combining the rezoning and development permit applications. AbCellera formally announced its campus plans in April 2021.

AbCellera gained significant international attention last year when it developed the world’s first monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19 to be authorized for emergency use in high-risk patients in Canada and the United States. According to the company, over 400,000 doses of its bamlanivimab drug have been administered around the world, and it is estimated to have kept more than 22,000 people out of hospital — saving at least 11,000 lives.

In late 2020, the company closed a successful initial public offering, bringing in $556 million after selling nearly 28 million shares, far exceeding its original goal of raising $250 million. It was the largest-ever IPO by a Canadian biotech company.

Moderna and Canada

It seems like yesterday that Derek Rossi (co-founder of Moderna) was talking about Canada’s need for a biotechnology hub. (see this June 17, 2021 article by Barbara Shecter for the Financial Post). Interestingly, there’s been an announcement of a memorandum of understanding (these things are announced all the time and don’t necessarily result in anything) between Moderna and the government of Canada according to an August 10, 2021 item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news website,

Massachusetts-based drug maker Moderna will build an mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant in Canada within the next two years, CEO Stephane Bancel said Tuesday [August 10, 2021; Note the timing, the writ for the next federal election was dropped on August 15, 2021].

The company has signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government that will result in Canada becoming the home of Moderna’s first foreign operation. It’s not clear yet how much money Canada has offered to Moderna [emphasis mine] for the project.

Canada, whose life sciences industry has been decimated over the last three decades, wants in on the action. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to rebuild the industry, and the recent budget included a $2.2 billion, seven-year investment to grow the life science and biotech sectors.

Almost half of that targets companies that want to expand or set up vaccine and drug production in Canada. None of the COVID-19 vaccines to date have been made in Canada, leaving the country entirely reliant on imports to fill vaccine orders. As a result, Canada was slower out of the gate on immunizations than some of its counterparts with domestic production, and likely had to pay more per dose for some vaccines as well.

The location of the new facility hasn’t been finalized, but Bancel said the availability of an educated workforce will be the main deciding factor. He said the design is done and they’ll need to start hiring very soon so training can begin.

it’s not exactly a hub but who knows what the future will bring? I imagine there’s going to be some serious wrangling behind the scenes as the provinces battle to be the location for the facility. Note that Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne who made the announcement with Bancel in Montréal represents a federal riding in Québec. (BTW, Bancel is from France and seems to have spent much of his adult life in the US.) Of course anything can happen and I’m sure the BC contingent will make themselves felt but it would seem that Quebec is the front runner for now, assuming this memorandum of understanding leads to a facility. Given that we are in the midst of a federal election, it seems more probable than it might otherwise.

inBC Investment Corporation

Bob Mackin’s August 13, 2021 article for theBreaker.news sheds some light on how that corporation was formed so very quickly and more,

The B.C. NDP government rejigged the B.C. Immigrant Investor Fund last year, but refused to release the business case when it was rebranded as inBC Investment Corp. in late April [2021].

theBreaker.news requested the business case for the $500 million fund, which is overseen by a board of NDP patronage appointees, on May 6 [2021].

The 123-page document below is heavily censored — meaning the NDP cabinet is refusing to tell British Columbians the projected operating costs (including board expenses, salary and benefits, office space, operating and administration), full-time equivalents, and cash flows for the newest Crown corporation. inBC bills itself as a triple-bottom line organization, meaning it intends to invest on the basis of social, environmental and economic values.

When its enabling legislation was tabled, the NDP took steps to exempt inBC from the freedom of information law.

Thank you, Mr. Mackin.

More on Banting, insulin and patents

Caitlyn McClure’s 2016 article (Insulin’s Inventor Sold the Patent for $1. Then Drug Companies Got Hold of It.) for other98.com is a brief and pithy explanation for why insulin costs so much. Alanna Mitchell’s August 13, 2019 article for Maclean’s magazine investigates ‘insulin tourism’ and offers more detail as to how this situation has come about.

One last reminder, my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan provides insight into how competitive and rough the bitotechnology scene can be here in BC/Canada.

Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story

Nathan Vardi’s August 17, 2021 article for Forbes magazine about Ian MacLachlan and the delivery system for mRNA vaccines tells a type of story I’ve more often seen in history books. It is reminiscent of the Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla story of electricity. One gets all the glory while the other is largely forgotten.

I’m especially interested as much of this concerns players in the local (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) biotechnology scene. Vardi’s August 17, 2021 article sets the scene,

“The whole mRNA platform is not how to build an mRNA molecule; that’s the easy thing,” Bourla [Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla] says. “It is how to make sure the mRNA molecule will go into your cells and give the instructions.” 

Yet the story of how Moderna, BioNTech and Pfizer managed to create that vital delivery system has never been told. It’s a complicated saga involving 15 years of legal battles and accusations of betrayal and deceit. [emphases mine] What is clear is that when humanity needed a way to deliver mRNA to human cells to arrest the pandemic, there was only one reliable method available—and it wasn’t one originated in-house by Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech or any of the other major vaccine companies. 

A months-long investigation by Forbes reveals that the scientist most responsible for this critical delivery method is a little-known 57-year-old Canadian biochemist named Ian MacLachlan. As chief scientific officer of two small companies, Protiva Biotherapeutics and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, MacLachlan led the team that developed this crucial technology. Today, though, few people—and none of the big pharmaceutical companies—openly acknowledge his groundbreaking work, and MacLachlan earns nothing from the technology he pioneered. 

I have three stories (on this blog) mentioning Tekmira (all from 2014 or 2015) and none mentioning Protiva nor, for that matter, Ian MacLachlan.

Back to Vardi’s August 17, 2021 article,

Moderna Therapeutics vigorously disputes the idea that its mRNA vaccine uses MacLachlan’s delivery system, and BioNTech, the vaccine maker partnered with Pfizer, talks about it carefully. Legal proceedings are pending, and big money is at stake. 

Moderna, BioNTech and Pfizer are on their way to selling $45 billion worth of vaccines in 2021. They don’t pay a dime to MacLachlan. Other coronavirus vaccine makers, such as Gritstone Oncology, have recently licensed MacLachlan’s Protiva-Tekmira delivery technology for between 5% and 15% of product sales. MacLachlan no longer has a financial stake in the technology, but a similar royalty on the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines could yield as much as $6.75 billion in 2021 alone. …

Vardi provides evidence (Note: A link has been removed from the August 17, 2021 article excerpt,

Despite their denials, scientific papers and regulatory documents filed with the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] show that both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines use a delivery system strikingly similar to what MacLachlan and his team created—a carefully formulated four-lipid component that encapsulates mRNA in a dense particle through a mixing process involving ethanol and a T-connector apparatus. 

For years, Moderna claimed it was using its own proprietary delivery system, but when it came time for the company to test its Covid-19 vaccine in mice, it used the same four kinds of lipids as MacLachlan’s technology, in identical ratios. 

According to Vardi’s LinkedIn profile: “I am a senior editor at Forbes, where I am responsible for the coverage of hedge funds, private equity, and other big investors. I lead investigative reporting efforts and have written 20 cover stories for Forbes Magazine,” he does not appear to have any medical or bioscience expertise (Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University [Canada] and Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University [US].) Presumably someone he consulted or someone on his team provided the skills necessary for analyzing the scientific papers and documents.

You may recognize this scientist (from the August 17, 2021 article),

Not everyone ignores MacLachlan. “A lot of credit goes to Ian MacLachlan for the LNP [lipid nanoparticle],” says Katalin Karikó, [emphasis mine] the scientist who laid the groundwork for mRNA therapies before joining BioNTech in 2013. But Karikó, now a frontrunner for a Nobel Prize, is angry that MacLachlan didn’t do more to help her use his delivery system to build her own mRNA company years ago. “[MacLachlan] might be a great scientist, but he lacked vision,” she says.

I have more about Karikó and her role in the mRNA vaccine story here in a March 5, 2021 posting.

As for MacLachlan’s start (from the August 17, 2021 article),

… With a Ph.D. in biochemistry, MacLachlan joined Inex in 1996, his first job after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in a gene lab at the University of Michigan. 

Inex was cofounded by its chief scientific officer, Pieter Cullis, now 75, a long-haired physicist who taught at the University of British Columbia. From his perch there Cullis started several biotechs, cultivating an elite community of scientists that made Vancouver a hotbed of lipid chemistry. 

As companies rise and fall with intellectual property being assigned to one company or other, legal brawls ensue. This was the time that Karikó came knocking on the door, from the August 17, 2021 article,

It was in the midst of all this furious legal fighting that Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó first showed up at MacLachlan’s door. Karikó was early to grasp that MacLachlan’s delivery system held the key to unlocking the potential of mRNA therapies. As early as 2006, she began sending letters to MacLachlan urging him to encase her groundbreaking chemically altered mRNA in his four-lipid delivery system. Embroiled in litigation, MacLachlan passed on her offer. 

Karikó didn’t give up easily. In 2013, she flew to meet with Tekmira’s executives, offering to relocate to Vancouver and work directly under MacLachlan. Tekmira passed. “Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac all wanted me to work for them, but my number one choice, Tekmira, didn’t,” says Karikó, who took a job at BioNTech in 2013. 

By this time, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel [emphasis mine] was also trying to solve the delivery puzzle. Bancel held discussions with Tekmira about collaborating, but talks stalled. At one point, Tekmira indicated it wanted at least $100 million up front, plus royalties, to strike a deal.

Instead, Moderna partnered with Madden [Thomas Madden], who was still working with Cullis at their drug delivery company, Acuitas Therapeutics.  …

I have been wondering why Acuitas Therapeutics hasn’t been getting all that much attention in the hyperbolic discussions about British Columbia’s (or Vancouver’s) thriving biotechnology scene. (I’ll have more about the ‘scene’ in a later posting.) Perhaps all this legal wrangling is not considered helpful when bragging. (I do have a November 12, 2020 post, which features Acuitas, an interview with its president and chief executive office Dr. Thomas Madden, and an explanation of their technology.)

As for Moderna, I have a special interest as the company has announced plans to open a production facility here in Canada and one of Moderna’s founders is Canadian, Derek Rossi. (He too is mentioned in the March 5, 2021 posting, scroll down to the ‘Entrepreneurs rush in’ subhead; he is not an altogether happy camper.)

Rossi has opinions on how we should be doing things here as noted in a June 17, 2021 article by Barbara Shecter for the Financial Post (Moderna founder says Canada needs to build a biotech hub to avoid ‘getting caught with its pants down next time’). Thank you, Mr. Rossi. (I’m more familiar with clusters than hubs [hubs were a popular topic of conversation about 20 years ago but in Canada we seem more interested in clusters; see John Newbigin’s “Hubs, clusters and regions” on britishcouncil.org for a description of the differences].)

As for Moderna’s response to all of the legal wrangling over mRNA delivery systems, from Vardi’s August 17, 2021 article,

Moderna pursued a different strategy. It filed lawsuits with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office seeking to nullify a series of patents related to MacLachlan’s delivery system, now controlled by Genevant. But in July 2020, as Moderna was pushing its vaccine through clinical trials, an adjudicative body largely upheld the most important patent claims. (Moderna is appealing.)

I highly recommend reading Vardi’s August 17, 2021 article as I have not done justice to all of the ‘ins and outs’ of the story.

You can see how thoroughly MacLachlan has been erased form the lipid nanoparticle delivery system/COVID-19 vaccine story in this May 24 ,2021 posting (Lipid nanoparticles: The underrated invention behind the vaccine revolution) by Nada Salem at the Science Borealis blog. It is largely a description of the technology and in the last two paragraphs a history of its development with no mention of MacLachlan or any of his companies.

One last thought, I wonder how Vardi found out about MacLachlan. Could someone have brought the story to his attention and who might that have been?

Litus, a University of Calgary spin-off company, and its lithium extraction process

This company is very secretive. Other than some information about the technology everything else is a mystery. From an April 28, 2021 news item on mining.com,

Litus announced the launching of LiNC, a patent-pending lithium extraction solution initially developed at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

In a press release, the company said that the nanotechnology composite material within LiNC has very strong ionic affinity and lithium selectivity in the presence of high concentrations of competing ions such as sodium, magnesium and calcium. 

According to Litus, its technology is able to efficiently and sustainably extract more lithium from brine sources than similar methods.

“Demand for lithium is growing at a rate that current production methods and technologies simply can’t meet. Through the application of LiNC, mining companies have an opportunity to not only increase the reserves and production of their existing assets but should be able to open up new sources of lithium that have been either uneconomic or too environmentally sensitive to be practical with previous extraction technology,” the firm’s statement reads.

There is another company which also extracts lithium from the brine in oil wells; their claim to fame is a ‘greener’ extraction method (see my February 23, 2021 posting about Summit Nanotech, which is also located in Calgary, Alberta.)

Getting back to the mysterious Litus,I found this on the About Us section of their homepage,

The Company was formed in 2019 on research originally conducted at the University of Calgary. 

Litus is passionate about developing and supporting technology products that inspire its customers and partners to create energy solutions that are more abundant, more accessible, cleaner, safer, and more efficient. 

The Company is currently applying its leadership in nanotechnology and chemical processing to help companies produce lithium more efficiently and cleanly than previously possible.

THE TEAM

Litus is led by an exceptional group of professional chemists, nanotechnologists, and chemical process engineers, as well as experienced entrepreneurial business professionals. The team has a proven track record of success with both scientific achievements, and in scaling new technologies to become industrially and commercially successful solutions.

You can check out the company’s LinkedIn profile but it’s not particularly useful. There are apparently nine employees but none are identified and the description of the company’s technology is the same as what can be found on their website’s homepage.

Should you be interested in the ‘lithium extraction from brine’ industry, Gabriel Friedman’s February 9, 2021 article for the Financial Post provides some insight into the competitiveness and volatility of this still niche market.

New water treatment with 3D-printed graphene aerogels

Caption: Graphene aerogel on a single tissue. Credit: University at Buffalo

That image of the graphene aerogel on a tissue shows off its weightlessness very well.

Here’s more about the graphene aerogel water treatment from an April 14, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

Graphene excels at removing contaminants from water, but it’s not yet a commercially viable use of the wonder material.

That could be changing.

In a recent study, University at Buffalo [UB] engineers report a new process of 3D printing graphene aerogels that they say overcomes two key hurdles — scalability and creating a version of the material that’s stable enough for repeated use — for water treatment.

“The goal is to safely remove contaminants from water without releasing any problematic chemical residue,” says study co-author Nirupam Aich, PhD, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “The aerogels we’ve created hold their structure when put in water treatment systems, and they can be applied in diverse water treatment applications.”

An April 14, 2021 UB news release (also on EurekAlert) by Melvin Bankhead III, which originated the news item, explains the breakthrough in more detail,

An aerogel is a light, highly porous solid formed by replacement of liquid in a gel with a gas so that the resulting solid is the same size as the original. They are similar in structural configuration to Styrofoam: very porous and lightweight, yet strong and resilient.

Graphene is a nanomaterial formed by elemental carbon and is composed of a single flat sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a repeating hexagonal lattice.

To create the right consistency of the graphene-based ink, the researchers looked to nature. They added to it two bio-inspired polymers — polydopamine (a synthetic material, often referred to as PDA, that is similar to the adhesive secretions of mussels), and bovine serum albumin (a protein derived from cows).

In tests, the reconfigured aerogel removed certain heavy metals, such as lead and chromium, that plague drinking water systems nationwide. It also removed organic dyes, such as cationic methylene blue and anionic Evans blue, as well as organic solvents like hexane, heptane and toluene.

To demonstrate the aerogel’s reuse potential, the researchers ran organic solvents through it 10 times. Each time, it removed 100% of the solvents. The researchers also reported the aerogel’s ability to capture methylene blue decreased by 2-20% after the third cycle.

The aerogels can also be scaled up in size, Aich says, because unlike nanosheets, aerogels can be printed in larger sizes. This eliminates a previous problem inherent in large-scale production, and makes the process available for use in large facilities, such as in wastewater treatment plants, he says. He adds the aerogels can be removed from water and reused in other locations, and that they don’t leave any kind of residue in the water.

Aich is part of a collaboration between UB and the University of Pittsburgh, led by UB chemistry professor Diana Aga, PhD, to find methods and tools to degrade per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), toxic materials so difficult to break down that they are known as “forever chemicals.” Aich notes the similarities to his work with 3D aerogels, and he hopes results from the two projects can be brought together to create more effective methods of removing waterborne contaminants.

“We can use these aerogels not only to contain graphene particles but also nanometal particles which can act as catalysts,” Aich says. “The future goal is to have nanometal particles embedded in the walls and the surface of these aerogels and they would be able to degrade or destroy not only biological contaminants, but also chemical contaminants.”

Aich, Chi, and Masud [Arvid Masud, PhD] hold a pending patent for the graphene aerogel described in the study, and they are looking for industrial partners to commercialize this process.

Here’s link to and a citation for the paper,

Emerging investigator series: 3D printed graphene-biopolymer aerogels for water contaminant removal: a proof of concept by Arvid Masud, Chi Zhoub and Nirupam Aich. Environ. Sci.: Nano, 2021,8, 399-414 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1039/D0EN00953A First published online: 09 Dec 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

A Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club on June 9, 2021

The link between science fiction and science innovation and technology has been documented and argued over elsewhere online and in print. However, the link between policy and science fiction is new to me.

First, here’s the upcoming event which caught my eye (from the Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club event page),

[ONLINE] – Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Science fiction can have real science policy impacts, and comes rife with real-life commentary. And with such a rich cache of science fiction to choose from, we think a book club is in order.

Join us [emphasis mine] for the first installment of our Science Fiction/Real Policy book club, a partnership with Issues in Science and Technology. Our first read will be Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Autonomous follows the story of a female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack, an anti-patent scientist who has set out to bring cheap drugs to the poor. Without giving away too many spoilers, Newitz’s tale also includes a military agent-robot love story, a quest for justice, and the danger late capitalist modernity poses to personhood.

Join us for a jam-packed evening where we’ll discuss Autonomous and the questions it raises about labor and power, robot ethics, gender, patent law, the pharmaceutical industry, geopolitics, and much more.

Featured discussants

Joey Eschrich
Editor and Manager, Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University [ASU]

Tahir Amin
Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director, I-MAK

When

Jun. 9, 2021 [Wednesday]
6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Where

Online Only Webcast link

RSVP here

Follow the conversation online using #FTBookClub and by following @FutureTenseNow.

Who is ‘us’?

The hosting organization is New America (newamerica.org). If you click on their About tab/button, you’ll find this,

We are dedicated to renewing the promise of America by continuing the quest to realize our nation’s highest ideals, honestly confronting the challenges caused by rapid technological and social change, and seizing the opportunities those changes create.

Amongst other programs, New America is participating in Future Tense,

Future Tense is a partnership between New America, Arizona State University, and Slate magazine to explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy. Central to the partnership is a series of events that take in-depth, provocative looks at issues that, while little-understood today, will dramatically reshape the policy debates of the coming decade.

It took me a while but I finally realized that the book club is a Future Tense initiative.

As for I-MAK, it’s an organization devoted to improving access to medicines globally and amongst other activities, solving the drug patent problem.

Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

At about 7:15 am PT this morning , May 13, 2021, I saw Dr. Mona Nemer’s (Canada’s Chief Science Advisor) tweet (Note: I’m sorry the formatting isn’t better,

Maryse de la Giroday@frogheart Does this mean Canada will support a waiver on patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines?

7:18 AM · May 13, 2021

Dr. Mona Nemer@ChiefSciCanThe global health crisis of the past year has underscored the critical importance of openly sharing scientific information. We are one step closer to making #openscience a reality around the world. So pleased that my office was part of these discussions. http://webcast.unesco.org/events/2021-05-OS-IGM/ Quote Tweet

Canada at UNESCO@Canada2UNESCO · May 6@Canada2UNESCO is partaking in negotiations today on the draft recommendation on #OpenScience The benefits of #science and #technology to health, the #economy and #development should be available to all.6:40 AM · May 13, 2021·Twitter Web App

No reply. No surprise

Brief summary of Canada’s COVID-19 patent rights nonwaiver

You’ll find more about the UNESCO meeting on open science in last week’s May 7, 2021 posting (Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting [about Open Science]).

At the time, I noted a disparity in Canada’s policies centering on open science and patents; scroll down to the “Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada” subsection for a more nuanced analysis. For those who don’t have the patience and/or the time, it boils down to this:

  1. Canada is happily participating in a UNESCO meeting on open science,
  2. the 2021 Canadian federal budget just dedicated a big chunk of money to augmenting Canada’s national patent strategy, and
  3. Canada is “willing to discuss” a waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings.

I predicted UNESCO would see our representative’s enthusiastic participation while our representative at the WTO meeting would dance around the topic without committing. to anything. Sadly, it’s starting to look like I was right.

Leigh Beadon in a May 12, 2021 posting on Techdirt reveals the situation is worse than I thought (Note: Links have been removed),

Few things illustrate the broken state of our global intellectual property system better than the fact that, well over a year into this devastating pandemic and in the face of a strong IP waiver push by some of the hardest hit countries, patents are still holding back the production of life-saving vaccines. And of all the countries opposing a waiver at the WTO (or withholding support for it, which is functionally the same thing), Canada might be the most frustrating [emphasis mine].

Canada is the biggest hoarder [emphasis mine] of vaccine pre-orders, having secured enough to vaccinate the population five times over. Despite this, it has constantly run into supply problems and lagged behind comparable countries when it comes to administering the vaccines on a per capita basis. In response to criticism of its hoarding, the government continues to focus on its plans to donate all surplus doses to the COVAX vaccine sharing program — but these promises were somewhat more convincing before Canada became the only G7 country to withdraw doses from COVAX. Despite all this, and despite pressure from experts who explain how vaccine hoarding will prolong the pandemic for everyone, the country has continually refused to voice its support for a TRIPS patent waiver at the WTO.

Momentum for changing Canada’s position on a COVID-19 vaccine patent right waivers?

Maclean’s magazine has a May 10, 2021 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

The only way to combat this pandemic successfully is through a massive global vaccination campaign on a scale and timeline never before undertaken. This requires the production of effective tools and technologies to fight COVID-19 at scale and coordinated global distribution efforts.

The Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is leading to the opposite outcome. Vaccine production is hindered by granting pharmaceutical companies monopoly power through protection of intellectual property rights, industrial designs and trade secrets. Pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to engage in health technology knowledge transfer makes large-scale, global vaccine production in (and for) low- and middle-income countries all but impossible. The current distribution of vaccines globally speaks to these obstacles.

Hundreds of civil society groups, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the elected governments of over 100 countries, including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have come together and stated that current intellectual property protections reduce the availability of vaccines for protecting their people. On May 5, 2021 the United States also announced its intention to support a temporary waiver for vaccines at the WTO.

We are writing to ask our Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to an equitable global pandemic response by supporting a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement. But clearly that is a necessary but not a sufficient first step. We recognize that scaling up vaccine production requires more than just a waiver of intellectual property rights, so we further request that our government support the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to facilitate knowledge sharing and work with the WTO to address the supply chain and export constraints currently impeding vaccine production. Finally, because vaccines must be rolled out as part of an integrated strategy to end the acute phase of the epidemic, we request that Canada support the full scope of the TRIPS waiver, which extends to all essential COVID-19 products and technologies, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

The status quo is clearly not working fast enough to end the acute phase of the pandemic globally. This waiver respects global intellectual property frameworks and takes advantage of existing provisions for exceptions during emergencies, as enshrined in the TRIPS agreement. Empowering countries to take measures to protect their own people is fundamental to bringing this pandemic to an end.

Anand Giridharadas (author of the 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) also makes the case for a patent rights waiver in his May 11, 2021 posting on The Ink, Note: A link has been removed,

Patents are temporary monopolies granted to inventors, to reward invention and thus encourage more of it. But what happens when you invent a drug that people around the world require to stay alive? What happens when, furthermore, that drug was built in part on technology the public paid for? Are there limits to intellectual property?

For years, activists have pressured the United States government to break or suspend patents in particular cases, as with HIV/Aids. They have had little luck. Indeed, the United States has often fought developing countries when they try to break patents to do right by their citizens, choosing American drug companies over dying people.

So it was a dramatic swerve when, last week, the Biden administration announced that it supported a waiver of the patents for Covid vaccines.

Not long afterward, I reached out to several leading activists for vaccine access to understand the significance of the announcement and where we go from here.

in all this talk about patents and social justice and, whether it’s directly referenced or not, money, the only numbers of I’ve seen,until recently, have been numbers of doses and aggregate costs.

How much does a single vaccine dose cost?

A Sunday, April 11, 2021 article by Krassen Nikolov for EURACTIV provides an answer about the cost in one region, the European Union,

“Pfizer cost €12, then €15.50. The Commission now signs contracts for €19,50”, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov revealed on Sunday [April 11, 2021].

The European Commission is in talks with Pfizer for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in 2022 and 2023. Borissov said the contracts provide for €19.50 per dose.

Under an agreement with the vaccine producing companies, the European Commission has so far refused to reveal the price of vaccines. However, last December Belgian Secretary of State Eva De Bleeker shared on Twitter the vaccine prices negotiated by the Commission, as well as the number of doses purchased by her government. Then, it became known that the AstraZeneca jab costs €1.78 compared to €12 for Pfizer-BioNTech.

€12 to €19,50, that’s an increase of over 50%. I wonder how Pfizer is justifying such a hefty increase?

According to a March 16, 2021 article by Swikar Oli for the National Post (a Canadian newspaper), these prices are a cheap pandemic special prices,

A top Pfizer executive told shareholders the company is looking at a “significant opportunity” to raise the price of its Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

While addressing investors at the virtual Barclays Global Healthcare Conference last week, Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio noted they could raise prices when the virus becomes endemic, meaning it’s regularly found in clusters around the globe, according to a transcript of the conference posted on Pfizer’s website.

Current vaccine pricing models are pandemic-related, D’Amelio explained. After the pandemic is defeated and “normal market conditions” arrive, he noted the window would open for a “significant opportunity…from a pricing perspective.”

“So the one price that we published is the price with the U.S. of $19.50 per dose. Obviously, that’s not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine, $150, $175 [emphasis mine] per dose,” he said, “So pandemic pricing.”

If I remember it rightly, as you increase production, you lower costs per unit. In other words, it’s cheaper to produce one dozen than one, which is why your bakery charges you less money per bun or cake if you purchase by the dozen.

During this pandemic, Pfizer has been producing huge amounts of vaccine, which they would not expect to do should the disease become endemic. As Pfizer has increased production, I would think the price should be dropping but according to the Bulgarian prime minister, it’s not.

They don’t seem to be changing the vaccine as new variants arrive. So, raising the prices doesn’t seem to be linked to research issues and as for the new production facilities, surely those didn’t cost billions.

Canada and COVID-19 money

Talking about money, Canada has a COVDI-19 billionaire according to a December 23, 2020 article (Meet The 50 Doctors, Scientists And Healthcare Entrepreneurs Who Became Pandemic Billionaires In 2020) by Giacomo Tognini for Forbes.

I have a bit more about Carl Hansen (COVID-19 billionaire) and his company, AbCellera, in my December 30, 2020 posting.

I wonder how much the Canadian life sciences community has to do with Canada’s hesitancy over a COVID-19 vaccine patent rights waiver.

Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting (about Open Science)

If you are intrigued* by the idea of sitting in on a UNESCO meeting, in this case, the Intergovernmental special committee meeting (Category II) related to the draft UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, there is an opportunity.

Before getting to the opportunity, I want to comment on how smart the UNESCO communications/press office has been. Interest in relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules is gaining momentum (May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]) and a decision was made in the press office (?) to capitalize on this momentum as a series of UNESCO meetings about open science are taking place. Well done!

Later in this post, I have a few comments about the intellectual property scene and open science in Canada.

UNESCO’s open meeting

According to the May 7, 2021 UNESCO press release no. 42 (received via email),

UNESCO welcomes move to lift the patent on the vaccines and pushes for
Open Science

Paris, 7 May [2021] -“The decision of the United States and many other
countries to call for the lifting of patent protection for coronavirus
vaccines could save millions of lives and serve as a blueprint for the
future of scientific cooperation. COVID-19 does not respect borders. No
country will be safe until the people of every country have access to
the vaccine,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

This growing momentum comes in response to the joint appeal made by
UNESCO, the WHO [World Health Organization] and the UNHCR [United Nations Commission on Human Rights] to open up science and boost scientific
cooperation in October 2020. Early in the pandemic last spring, UNESCO
mobilized over 122 countries to promote Open Science and reinforced
international cooperation.

The pandemic triggered strong support for Open Science among Member
States for this agenda. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the
new coronavirus on 11 January 2020 and posted it online, enabling German
scientists to develop a screening test, which was then shared by the
World Health Organization with governments everywhere. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world has embarked on a new era of
scientific research, forcing all countries to construct the shared rules
and common norms we need to work more effectively in these changing
times.

The recent announcements of countries in favor of lifting patents show
the growing support for open scientific cooperation. They also coincide
with the five-day meeting of UNESCO Member States to define a global
standard-setting framework on Open Science, which aims to develop new
models for the circulation of scientific knowledge and its benefits,
including global commons.

The outcomes of the meeting will lead to a Global Recommendation on Open
Science to be adopted by UNESCO’s 193 Member States at the
Organization’s General Conference in November 2021. This
Recommendation aims to be a driver for shared global access to data,
publications, patents, software, educational resources and technological
innovations and to reengage all of society in science.

More Information on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1]

After clicking on UNESCO’s events link (in the above), you’ll be sent to a page where you’ll be invited to link to a live webcast (it’s live if there’s a session taking place and there will be on May 10, May 11, and May 12, 2021). If you’re on the West Coast of Canada or the US, add nine hours since the meeting is likely taking place on Paris (France) time (so at 2 pm PT, you’re not likely to hear anything), where UNESCO is headquartered. When you get to the page hosting the live webcast, click on the tab listing the current day’s date.

I managed to listen to some of the meeting this morning (May 7, 2021) at about 8 am my time; for the participants, it was a meeting that ran late. The thrill is being able to attend or listen in. From a content perspective, you probably need to be serious about open science and the language used to define it and make recommendations about it.

Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada

Mentioned earlier was the rising momentum for relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules, I looked carefully at the May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on CBC] and couldn’t find any evidence that Canada is actively supporting the idea. However, the Canadian government has indicated a willingness to discuss relaxing the rules,

France joined the United States on Thursday [May 6, 2021] in supporting an easing of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic. While the backing from two countries with major drugmakers is important, many obstacles remain.

The United States’ support for waiving the protections marked a dramatic shift in its position. Still, even just one country voting against such a waiver would be enough to block efforts at the World Trade Organization [WTO].

With the Biden administration’s announcement on Wednesday [May 5, 2021], the U.S. became the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa last October at the WTO.

“I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday [May 6, 2021] on a visit to a vaccine centre.

Many other leaders chimed in — though few expressed direct support. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the U.S. announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to patents for the vaccines.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the U.S. position “great news” but did not directly respond to a question about whether his country would support a waiver.

Canada’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng told the House of Commons on Thursday that the federal government will “actively participate” in talks to waive the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets. [emphases mine]

[Canada’s] International Development Minister Karina Gould said the U.S. support for waiving patents is “a really important step in this conversation.” [emphases mine]

Big difference between supporting something and talking about it, eh?

Open science in Canada

Back in 2016, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI or Montreal Neuro) in Québec, Canada was the first academic institution in the world to embrace an open science policy. Here’s the relevant excerpt from my January 22, 2016 posting (the posting describes the place that Montreal Neuro occupies historically in Canada and on the global stage),

.. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute. [emphasis mine]

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

What about intellectual property (IP) and the 2021 federal budget?

Interestingly, the 2021 Canadian federal budget, released April 19, 2021, (see my May 4, 2021 posting) has announced more investments in intellectual property initiatives,

“Promoting Canadian Intellectual Property

As the most highly educated country in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], Canada is full of innovative and entrepreneurial people with great ideas. Those ideas are valuable intellectual property that are the seeds of huge growth opportunities. Building on the National Intellectual Property Strategy announced in Budget 2018, the government proposes to further support Canadian innovators, start-ups, and technology-intensive businesses. Budget 2021 proposes:

  • $90 million, over two years, starting in 2022-23, to create ElevateIP, a program to help accelerators and incubators provide start-ups with access to expert intellectual property services.
  • $75 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to provide high-growth client firms with access to expert intellectual property services.

These direct investments would be complemented by a Strategic Intellectual Property Program Review that will be launched. It is intended as a broad assessment of intellectual property provisions in Canada’s innovation and science programming, from basic research to near-commercial projects. This work will make sure Canada and Canadians fully benefit from innovations and intellectual property.”

Now, it’s back to me and the usual formatting for an upcoming excerpt. As for Canada’s National Intellectual Property Strategy, here’s more from the April 26, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,

Canada’s IP Strategy will help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property and also get better access to shared intellectual property. Canada is a leader in research, science, creation and invention, but it can do more when it comes to commercializing innovations.

The IP Strategy will help give businesses the information and confidence they need to grow their business and take risks.

The IP Strategy will make changes in three key areas:

LEGISLATION

The IP Strategy will amend key IP laws to ensure that we remove barriers to innovation, particularly any loopholes that allow those seeking to use IP in bad faith to stall innovation for their own gain.

The IP Strategy will create an independent body to oversee patent and trademark agents, which will ensure that professional and ethical standards are maintained, and will support the provision of quality advice from IP professionals.

LITERACY AND ADVICE

As part of the IP Strategy, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office will launch a suite of programs to help improve IP literacy among Canadians.

The IP Strategy includes support for domestic and international engagement between Indigenous people and decision makers as well as for research activities and capacity building.

The IP Strategy will also support training for federal employees who deal with IP governance.

TOOLS

The IP Strategy will provide tools to support Canadian businesses as they learn about IP and pursue their own IP strategies.

The government is creating a patent collective to bring together businesses to facilitate better IP outcomes for members. The patent collective is the coming together of firms to share in IP expertise and strategy, including gaining access to a larger collection of patents and IP. 

I’m guessing what the government wants is more patents; at the same time, it does not want to get caught up in patent thickets and the patent troll wars often seen in the US. The desire for more patents isn’t simply ‘protection’ for Canadian businesses, it’s born also from a desire to brag (from “A few final comments subsection” in my May 4, 2021 posting on the Canadian federal budget),

The inclusion of a section on intellectual property in the budget could seem peculiar. I would have thought that years ago before I learned that governments measure and compare with other government the success of their science and technology efforts by the number of patents that have been filed. [new emphasis mine] There are other measures but intellectual property is very important, as far as governments are concerned. My “Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP” June 28, 2012 posting points to some of the shortcomings, with which we still grapple.

Not just a Canadian conundrum

IP (patents, trademarks, and copyright) has a long history and my understanding of patents and copyright (not sure about trademarks) is that they were initially intended to guarantee inventors and creators a fixed period of time in which to make money from their inventions and/or creations. IP was intended to encourage competition not stifle it as happens so often these days. Here’s more about patents from the Origin of Patents: Everything You Need to Know webpage on the upcounsel.com website (Note: Links have been removed),

Origins of Patent Law and the Incentive Theory

It is possible to trace the idea of patent law as far back as the 9th century B.C. in ancient Greece.  However, one of the most vital pieces of legislation in the history of patents is the English Statute of Monopolies. The Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies to end monopolies, which stifled competition. 

However, for about a decade, the Statute issued “letters patent” to allow for limited monopolies. This measure was seen as a way of balancing the importance of providing incentives for inventions with the distaste for monopolies. [emphasis mine] While monopolies usually don’t offer any innovative benefits, inventors need to have an incentive to create innovations that benefit society.

Changes?

As you can see in the ‘Origins of Patent Law’ excerpt , there’s a tension between ensuring profitability and spurring innovation. It certainly seems that our current approach to the problem is no longer successful.

There has been an appetite for change in how science is pursued, shared, and commercialized. Listening in on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1] (May 10 -12, 2021) is an opportunity to see how this movement could develop. Sadly, I don’t think the World Trade Organization is going to afford anyone the opportunity to tune in to discussions about relaxing COVDI-19 vaccine patent rules. (sigh)

As for the Canadian government’s ‘willingness to talk’ I expect the Canadian representative at the UNESCO will be very happy to adopt open science while the Canadian representative at the WTO will dance around without committing.

If you are inclined, please do share your thoughts on either of the meetings or on the move towards open science.

*’intrigues’ changed to ‘intrigued’ on May 13, 2021.

Canada’s 2021 budget and science

As more than one observer has noted, this April 19, 2021 budget is the first in two years. Predictably, there has been some distress over the copious amounts of money being spent to stimulate/restart the economy whether it needs it or not. Some have described this as a pre-election budget. Overall, there seems to be more satisfaction than criticism.

Maybe a little prescient?

After mentioning some of the government’s issues with money (Phoenix Payroll System debacle and WE Charity scandal) in my April 13, 2021 posting about the then upcoming Canadian Science Policy Centre’s post-budget symposium, I had these comments (which surprise even me),

None of this has anything to do with science funding (as far as I know) but it does set the stage for questions about how science funding is determined and who will be getting it. There are already systems in place for science funding through various agencies but the federal budget often sets special priorities such as the 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy [emphasis added April 29, 2021] with its attendant $125M. As well,Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to use science as a means of enhancing his appeal. [emphasis mine] See my March 16, 2018 posting for a sample of this, scroll down to the “Sunny ways: a discussion between Justin Trudeau and Bill Nye” subhead.

Budget 2021 introduced two new strategies, the first ones since the 2017 budget: the Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy and the National Quantum Strategy. As for whether this ploy will help enhance Trudeau’s appeal, that seems doubtful given his current plight (see an April 27, 2021 CBC online news item “PM says his office didn’t know Vance allegations were about sexual misconduct” for a description of some of Trudeau’s latest political scandal).

Science in the 2021 budget (a few highlights)

For anyone who wants to take a look at the 2021 Canadian Federal Budget, Chapters Four and Five (in Part Two) seems to contain the bulk of the science funding announcements. Here are the highlights, given my perspective, from Chapter Four (Note: I don’t chime in again until the “A full list …. subhead):

4.6 Investing in World-leading Research and Innovation

A plan for a long-term recovery must look to challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the years and decades to come. It must be led by a growth strategy that builds on the unique competitive advantages of the Canadian economy, and make sure that Canada is well-positioned to meet the demands of the next century. This work begins with innovation.

To drive growth and create good, well-paying jobs, entrepreneurs and businesses need to be able to translate Canada’s world-class leadership in research into innovative products and services for Canadians, and for the world.

These investments will help cement Canada’s position as a world leader in research and innovation, building a global brand that will attract talent and capital for years to come.

Supporting Innovation and Industrial Transformation

Since its launch in 2017, the Strategic Innovation Fund has been helping businesses invest, grow, and innovate in Canada. Through its efforts to help businesses make the investments they need to succeed, the fund is well-placed to support growth and the creation of good jobs across the Canadian economy—both now and in the future.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide the Strategic Innovation Fund with an incremental $7.2 billion over seven years on a cash basis, starting in 2021-22, and $511.4 million ongoing. This funding will be directed as follows:
  • $2.2 billion over seven years, and $511.4 million ongoing to support innovative projects across the economy—including in the life sciences, automotive, aerospace, and agriculture sectors.
  • $5 billion over seven years to increase funding for the Strategic Innovation Fund’s Net Zero Accelerator, as detailed in Chapter 5. Through the Net Zero Accelerator the fund would scale up its support for projects that will help decarbonize heavy industry, support clean technologies and help meaningfully accelerate domestic greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2030.

The funding proposed in Budget 2021 will build on the Strategic Innovation Fund’s existing resources, including the $3 billion over five years announced in December 2020 for the Net Zero Accelerator. With this additional support, the Strategic Innovation Fund will target investments in important areas of future growth over the coming years to advance multiple strategic objectives for the Canadian economy:

  • $1.75 billion in support over seven years would be targeted toward aerospace in recognition of the longer-lasting impacts to this sector following COVID-19. This is in addition to the $250 million Aerospace Regional Recovery Initiative, outlined in section 4.2, providing a combined support of $2 billion to help this innovative sector recover and grow out of the crisis.
  • $1 billion of support over seven years would be targeted toward growing Canada’s life sciences and bio-manufacturing sector, restoring capabilities that have been lost and supporting the innovative Canadian firms and jobs in this sector. This is an important component of Canada’s plan to build domestic resilience and improve long-term pandemic preparedness proposed in Chapter 1, providing a combined $2.2 billion over seven years.
  • $8 billion over seven years for the Net Zero Accelerator to support projects that will help reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by expediting decarbonization projects, scaling-up clean technology, and accelerating Canada’s industrial transformation. More details are in Chapter 5.

Renewing the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy

Artificial intelligence is one of the greatest technological transformations of our age. Canada has communities of research, homegrown talent, and a diverse ecosystem of start-ups and scale-ups. But these Canadian innovators need investment in order to ensure our economy takes advantage of the enormous growth opportunities ahead in this sector. By leveraging our position of strength, we can also ensure that Canadian values are embedded across widely used, global platforms.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide up to $443.8 million over ten years, starting in 2021-22, in support of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, including:
  • $185 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to support the commercialization of artificial intelligence innovations and research in Canada.
  • $162.2 million over ten years, starting in 2021-22, to help retain and attract top academic talent across Canada—including in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. This programming will be delivered by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
  • $48 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to renew and enhance its research, training, and knowledge mobilization programs.
  • $40 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, to provide dedicated computing capacity for researchers at the national artificial intelligence institutes in Edmonton, Toronto, and Montréal.
  • $8.6 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to advance the development and adoption of standards related to artificial intelligence.

Launching a National Quantum Strategy

Quantum technology is at the very leading edge of science and innovation today, with enormous potential for commercialization. This emerging field will transform how we develop and design everything from life-saving drugs to next generation batteries, and Canadian scientists and entrepreneurs are well-positioned to take advantage of these opportunities. But they need investments to be competitive in this fast growing global market.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $360 million over seven years, starting in 2021-22, to launch a National Quantum Strategy. The strategy will amplify Canada’s significant strength in quantum research; grow our quantum-ready technologies, companies, and talent; and solidify Canada’s global leadership in this area. This funding will also establish a secretariat at the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development to coordinate this work.

The government will provide further details on the rollout of the strategy in the coming months.

Revitalizing the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre

Canada is a world leader in photonics, the technology of generating and harnessing the power of light. This is the science behind fibre optics, advanced semi-conductors, and other cutting-edge technologies, and there is a strong history of Canadian companies bringing this expertise to the world. The National Research Council’s Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre supplies photonics research, testing, prototyping, and pilot-scale manufacturing services to academics and large, small and medium-sized photonics businesses in Canada. But its aging facility puts this critical research and development at risk.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $90 million over five years on a cash basis, starting in 2021-22, to the National Research Council to retool and modernize the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre. This would allow the centre to continue helping Canadian researchers and companies grow and support highly skilled jobs.

Launching a Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy

Genomics research is developing cutting-edge therapeutics and is helping Canada track and fight COVID-19. Canada was an early mover in advancing genomics science and is now a global leader in the field. A national approach to support genomics research can lead to breakthroughs that have real world applications. There is an opportunity to improve Canadians’ health and well-being while also creating good jobs and economic growth. Leveraging and commercializing this advantage will give Canadian companies, researchers, and workers a competitive edge in this growing field.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $400 million over six years, starting in 2021-22, in support of a Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy. This funding would provide $136.7 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, for mission-driven programming delivered by Genome Canada to kick-start the new Strategy and complement the government’s existing genomics research and innovation programming.

Further investments to grow Canada’s strengths in genomics under the Strategy will be announced in the future.

Conducting Clinical Trials

Canadian scientists are among the best in the world at conducting high-quality clinical trials. Clinical trials lead to the development of new scientifically proven treatments and cures, and improved health outcomes for Canadians. They also create good jobs in the health research sector, including the pharmaceutical sector, and support the creation of new companies, drugs, medical devices, and other health products.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $250 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to implement a new Clinical Trials Fund.

Supporting the Innovation Superclusters Initiative

Since it was launched in 2017, the Innovation Superclusters Initiative has helped Canada build successful innovation ecosystems in important areas of the economy. Drawing on the strength and breadth of their networks, the superclusters were able to quickly pivot their operations and played an important role in Canada’s COVID-19 response. For example, the Digital Technology Supercluster allocated resources to projects that used digital technologies and artificial intelligence to help facilitate faster, more accurate diagnosis, treatment, and care of COVID-19 patients.

To help ensure those superclusters that made emergency investments to support Canada’s COVID-19 response and others can continue supporting innovative Canadian projects:

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $60 million over two years, starting in 2021-22, to the Innovation Superclusters Initiative.

Promoting Canadian Intellectual Property

As the most highly educated country in the OECD, Canada is full of innovative and entrepreneurial people with great ideas. Those ideas are valuable intellectual property that are the seeds of huge growth opportunities. Building on the National Intellectual Property Strategy announced in Budget 2018, the government proposes to further support Canadian innovators, start-ups, and technology-intensive businesses. Budget 2021 proposes:

  • $90 million, over two years, starting in 2022-23, to create ElevateIP, a program to help accelerators and incubators provide start-ups with access to expert intellectual property services.
  • $75 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to provide high-growth client firms with access to expert intellectual property services.

These direct investments would be complemented by a Strategic Intellectual Property Program Review that will be launched. It is intended as a broad assessment of intellectual property provisions in Canada’s innovation and science programming, from basic research to near-commercial projects. This work will make sure Canada and Canadians fully benefit from innovations and intellectual property.

Capitalizing on Space-based Earth Observation

Earth observation satellites support critical services that Canadians rely on. They provide reliable weather forecasts, support military and transport logistics, help us monitor and fight climate change, and support innovation across sectors, including energy and agriculture. They also create high-quality jobs in Canada and the government will continue to explore opportunities to support Canadian capacity, innovation, and jobs in this sector. To maintain Canada’s capacity to collect and use important data from these satellites, Budget 2021 proposes to provide:

  • $80.2 million over eleven years, starting in 2021-22, with $14.9 million in remaining amortization and $6.2 million per year ongoing, to Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada to replace and expand critical but aging ground-based infrastructure to receive satellite data.
  • $9.9 million over two years, starting in 2021-22, to the Canadian Space Agency to plan for the next generation of Earth observation satellites.

Science and Technology Collaboration with Israeli Firms

Collaborating with global innovation leaders allows Canadian companies to leverage expertise to create new products and services, support good jobs, and reach new export markets.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide additional funding of $10 million over five years, starting in 2021-2022, and $2 million per year ongoing, to expand opportunities for Canadian SMEs to engage in research and development partnerships with Israeli SMEs as part of the Canadian International Innovation Program. This will be sourced from existing Global Affairs Canada resources. The government also intends to implement an enhanced delivery model for this program, including possible legislation.

4.7 Supporting a Digital Economy

More and more of our lives are happening online—from socializing, to our jobs, to commerce. Recognizing the fundamental shifts underway in our society, the government introduced a new Digital Charter in 2020 that seeks to better protect the privacy, security, and personal data of Canadians, building trust and confidence in the digital economy.

To make sure that Canadian businesses can keep pace with this digital transformation and that they are part of this growth, Budget 2021 includes measures to ensure businesses and workers in every region of the country have access to fast, reliable internet. It also has measures to make sure that the digital economy is fair and well reported on.

A digital economy that serves and protects Canadians and Canadian businesses is vital for long-term growth.

Accelerating Broadband for Everyone

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted much of our lives online and transformed how we live, work, learn, and do business. This makes it more important than ever that Canadians, including Canadian small businesses in every corner of this country, have access to fast and reliable high-speed internet. Canadians and Canadian businesses in many rural and remote communities who still do not have access to high-speed internet face a barrier to equal participation in the economy. Building on the $6.2 billion the federal government and federal agencies have made available for universal broadband since 2015:

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide an additional $1 billion over six years, starting in 2021-22, to the Universal Broadband Fund to support a more rapid rollout of broadband projects in collaboration with provinces and territories and other partners. This would mean thousands more Canadians and small businesses will have faster, more reliable internet connections.

In total, including proposed Budget 2021 funding, $2.75 billion will be made available through the Universal Broadband Fund to support Canadians in rural and remote communities. Recently, the Universal Broadband Fund provided funding to ensure Quebec could launch Operation High Speed, connecting nearly 150,000 Quebecers to high-speed internet. These continuing investments will help Canada accelerate work to reach its goal of 98 per cent of the country having high-speed broadband by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.

Establishing a New Data Commissioner

Digital and data-driven technologies open up new markets for products and services that allow innovative Canadians to create new business opportunities—and high-value jobs. But as the digital and data economy grows, Canadians must be able to trust that their data are protected and being used responsibly.

  • Budget 2021 proposes to provide $17.6 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, and $3.4 million per year ongoing, to create a Data Commissioner. The Data Commissioner would inform government and business approaches to data-driven issues to help protect people’s personal data and to encourage innovation in the digital marketplace.
  • Budget 2021 also proposes to provide $8.4 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, and $2.3 million ongoing, to the Standards Council of Canada to continue its work to advance industry-wide data governance standards.

A full list of science funding highlights from the 2021 federal budget

If you don’t have the time or patience to comb through the budget for all of the science funding announcements, you can find an excellent list in an April 19, 2021posting on Evidence for Democracy (Note: Links have been removed; h/t Science Media Centre of Canada newsletter),

Previously, we saw a landmark budget for science in 2018, which made historic investments in fundamental research totaling more than $1.7 billion. This was followed by additional commitments in 2019 that included expanded support for research trainees and access to post-secondary education. While no federal budget was tabled in 2020, there have been ongoing investments in Canadian science throughout the pandemic.

Budget 2021 attempts to balance the pressing challenges of the pandemic with a long-term view towards recovery and growth. We are pleased to see strategic investments across the Canadian science ecosystem, including targeted research funding in artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and bioinnovation. There is also a focus on climate action, which outlines a $17.6 billion investment towards green recovery and conservation. There are also noteworthy investments in research and development partnerships, and data capacity. Beyond research, Budget 2021 includes investments in childcare, mental health, Indigenous communities, post-secondary education, and support for gender-based and Black-led initiatives.

We note that this budget does not include significant increases to the federal granting agencies, or legislation to safeguard the Office of the Chief Science Advisor.

Below, we highlight key research-related investments in Budget 2021.

The list is here in the April 19, 2021posting.

Is it magic or how does the federal budget get developed?

I believe most of the priorities are set by power players behind the scenes. We glimpsed some of the dynamics courtesy of the WE Charity scandal 2020/21 and the SNC-Lavalin scandal in 2019.

Access to special meetings and encounters are not likely to be given to any member of the ‘great unwashed’ but we do get to see the briefs that are submitted in anticipation of a new budget. These briefs and meetings with witnesses are available on the Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance (FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

For the 2021 federal budget, there are 792 briefs and transcripts of meeting with 52 witnesses. Whoever designed the page decided to make looking at more than one or two briefs onerous. Just click on a brief that interests you and try to get back to the list.

National Quantum Strategy

There is a search function but ‘quantum’ finds only Xanadu Quantum Technologies (more about their brief in a minute) and not D-Wave Systems, which is arguably a more important player in the field. Regardless, both companies presented briefs although the one from Xanadu was of the most interest as it seems to be recommending a national strategy without actually using the term (from the Xanadu Quantum Technologies budget 2021 brief),

Recommendation 1: Quantum Advisory Board

The world is at the beginning of the second Quantum Revolution, which will result in the development and deployment of revolutionary quantum technologies, based upon the scientific discoveries of the past century. Major economies of the world, including the USA, China, Japan, EU, UK and South Korea, have all identified quantum technologies as strategically important, and have adopted national strategies or frameworks. Many of them have dedicated billions of dollars of funding to quantum technology R&D and commercialization. We urge the government to create a Quantum Advisory Board or Task Force, to ensure a coherent national strategy which involves all areas of government:research, education, industry, trade, digital government, transportation, health, defence,etc.

Recommendation 2: Continue Supporting Existing Research Centres

Canada has a long history of nurturing world-class academic research in quantum science at our universities. The CFREF [Canada First Research Excellence Fund {CFREF}] program was a welcome catalyst which solidified the international stature of the quantum research programs at UBC [University of British Columbia], Waterloo [University of Waterloo; Ontario] and Sherbrooke [University of Sherbrooke; Québec]. Many of our highly qualified team members have graduated from these programs and other Canadian universities. We urge the government to continue funding these research centers past the expiration of the CFREF program, to ensure the scientific critical mass is not dissipated, and the highly sought-after talent is not pulled away to other centers around the world.

Recommendation 3: National Quantum Computing Access Centre

Our Canadian competitor, D-Wave Systems, was started in Canada nearly 20 years ago,and has yet to make significant sales or build a strong user base within Canada. At Xanadu we also find that the most ready customers for our computers are researchers in the USA,rather than in Canada, despite the strong interest from many individual professors we speak with at a number of Canadian universities. We urge the government to create a National Quantum Computing Access Centre, through Compute Canada or another similar national organization, which can centralize and coordinate the provision of quantum computing access for the Canadian academic research community. Without access to these new machines, Canadian researchers will lose their ability to innovate new algorithms and applications of this groundbreaking technology. It will be impossible to train the future workforce of quantum programmers, without access to the machines like those of D-Wave and Xanadu.

Recommendation 4: National Quantum Technology Roundtable

Traditional, resource-based Canadian industries are not historically known for the ir innovative adoption of new technology, and the government has created many programs to encourage digitalization of manufacturing and resource industries, and also newer,cleaner technology adoption in the energy and other heavy industries. Quantum technologies in computing, communications and sensing have the potential to make exponential improvements in many industries, including: chemicals, materials, logistics,transportation, electricity grids, transit systems, wireless networks, financial portfolio analysis and optimization, remote sensing, exploration, border security, and improved communication security. We urge the government to convene national roundtable discussions, perhaps led by the NRC, to bring together the Canadian researchers and companies developing these new technologies, along with the traditional industries and government bodies of Canada who stand to benefit from adopting them, for mutual education and information sharing, roadmapping, benchmarking and strategic planning.

Recommendation 5: New Quantum Computing Institute in Toronto

The University of Toronto is the leading research institution in Canada, and one of the top research universities in the world. Many world-class scientists in quantum physics,chemistry, computer science, and electrical engineering are currently part of the Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control (CQIQC) at the university [University of Toronto]. British Columbia has recently announced the creation of a new institute dedicated to the study of Quantum Algorithms, and we encourage the government to build upon the existing strengths of the quantum research programs at the CQIQC, through the funding of a new,world-class research institute, focussed on quantum computing. Such an institute will leverage not only the existing quantum expertise, but also the world-class artificial intelligence and machine learning research communities in the city. The tech industry in Toronto is also the fastest growing in North America, hiring more than San Francisco or Boston. We request the government fund the establishment of a new quantum computing institute built on Toronto’s 3 pillars of quantum research, artificial intelligence, and a thriving tech industry, to create a center of excellence with global impact.

Recommendation 6: Dedicated BDC [Business Development Bank of Canada] Quantum Venture Fund

Although there is no major international firm developing and selling quantum-based technology from Canada, a number of the world’s most promising start-ups are based here. Xanadu and our peer firms are now actively shaping our business models; refining our products and services; undertaking research and development; and developing networks of customers.To date, Canadian firms like Xanadu have been successful at raising risk capital from primarily domestic funds like BDC, OMERS, Georgian Partners and Real Ventures,without having to leave the country. In order to ensure a strong “Quantum Startup”ecosystem in Canada, we request that the BDC be mandated to establish a specialist quantum technology venture capital fund. Such a fund will help ensure the ongoing creation of a whole cluster of Canadian startups in all areas of Quantum Technology, and help to keep the technologies and talent coming from our research universities within the country.

Christian Weedbrook, Xanadu Chief Executive Officer, has taken the time to dismiss his chief competitor and managed to ignore the University of Calgary in his Canadian quantum future. (See my September 21, 2016 posting “Teleporting photons in Calgary (Canada) is a step towards a quantum internet,” where that team set a record for distance.)

The D-Wave Systems budget 2021 brief does have some overlapping interests but is largely standalone and more focused on business initiatives and on the US. Both briefs mention the Quantum Algorithms Institute (QAI), which is being established at Simon Fraser University (SFU) with an investment from the government of British Columbia (see this Oct. 2, 2019 SFU press release).

Where Weedbrook is passionately Canadian and signed the Xanadu brief himself, the D-Wave brief is impersonal and anonymous.

Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy

The Genome Canada brief doesn’t mention a pan-Canadian strategy,

List of Recommendations:

•Recommendation 1: That the government invest in mission-driven research —with line-of-sight to application —to mobilize genomics to drive Canada’s recovery in key sectors.

•Recommendation 2: That the government invest in a national genomics data strategy to drive data generation, analysis, standards, tools, access and usage to derive maximum value and impact from Canada’s genomics data assets.

•Recommendation 3: That the government invest in training of the next generation of genomics researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to support the development of a genomics-enabled Canadian bioeconomy.

•Recommendation 4: That the government invest in long-term and predictable research and research infrastructure through the federal granting agencies and the Canada Foundation forInnovation to ensure a strong and vibrant knowledge base for recovery.

It’s not an exciting start but if you continue you’ll find a well written and compelling brief.

A happy April 19, 2021 GenomeCanada news release provides an overview of how this affects the Canadian life sciences research effort,

“The federal government announced $400 million for a new Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy, including $136.7 million for Genome Canada to kickstart the Strategy, with further investments to be announced in the future. The budget recognized the key role genomics plays in developing cutting-edge therapeutics and in helping Canada track and fight COVID-19. It recognizes that Canada is a global leader in the field and that genomics can improve Canadians’ health and wellbeing while also creating good jobs and economic growth. Leveraging and commercializing this advantage will give Canadian companies, researchers, and workers a competitive edge in this growing field.

… Today’s announcement included excellent news for Canada’s long-term sustainable economic growth in biomanufacturing and the life sciences, with a total of $2.2 billion over seven years going toward growing life sciences, building up Canada’s talent pipeline and research systems, and supporting life sciences organizations.
 
Genome Canada welcomes other investments that will strengthen Canada’s research, innovation and talent ecosystem and drive economic growth in sectors of the future, including:

  • $500 million over four years, starting in 2021-22, for the Canada Foundation for Innovation to support the bio-science capital and infrastructure needs of post-secondary institutions and research hospitals;
  • $250 million over four years, starting in 2021-22, for the federal research granting councils to create a new tri-council biomedical research fund;
  • $250 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to implement a new Clinical Trials Fund;
  • $92 million over four years, starting in 2021-22, for adMare to support company creation, scale up, and training activities in the life sciences sector;
  • $59.2 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization to support the development of its vaccine candidates and expand its facility in Saskatoon;
  • $45 million over three years, starting in 2022-23, to the Stem Cell Network to support stem cell and regenerative medicine research; and
  • $708 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, to Mitacs to create at least 85,000 work-integrated learning placements that provide on-the-job learning and provide businesses with support to develop talent and grow.

The visionary support announced in Budget 2021 puts Canada on competitive footing with other G7 nations that have made major investments in research and innovation to drive high-value growth sectors, while placing bio-innovation at the heart of their COVID-19 recoveries. Genome Canada looks forward to leading the new Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy and to working with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and other partners on the strategic investments announced today.   

“To solve complex global problems, such as a worldwide pandemic and climate change, we need transdisciplinary approaches. The life sciences will play significant roles within such an approach. The funding announced today will be instrumental in driving Genome Canada’s mission to be Canada’s genomics platform for future pandemic preparedness, its capacity for biomanufacturing, and its bio-economy overall.”

– Dr. Rob Annan, President and CEO, Genome Canada

Canadian business innovation, science, and innovation—oxymoron?

Navdeep Bains was Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry (2015-January 12, 2021) and he had a few things to say as he stepped away (from an April 16, 2021 article by Kevin Carmichael for PostMedia on the SaltWire; Atlantic Canada website),

Navdeep Bains earlier this spring [2021] spoke to me about his tenure as industry minister, which inevitably led to questions about Canada’s eroding competitiveness. He said that he thought he’d done a pretty good job of creating the conditions for a more innovative economy. But the corporate elite? Not so much.

“The ball is back in business’s court,” Bains said. “Frankly, if businesses don’t do this, I think in the long run they will struggle. They have to start changing their behaviour significantly.”

How’s that for a parting shot?

Bains wasn’t the first Canadian policy-maker to get frustrated by Corporate Canada’s aversion to risky bets on research and cutting-edge technology [emphasis mine]. But it’s been a long time since anyone in Ottawa tried to coax them to keep up with the times by dangling big sacks of cash in their faces. All they had to do was demonstrate some ambition and be willing to complement the federal government’s contribution with an investment of their own.

“He [Bains] was a great cheerleader,” said Mike Wessinger, chief executive of PointClickCare Technologies Inc., a Mississauga-based developer of software that helps long-term care homes manage data. “He would always proactively reach out. It was great that he cared.”

It’s easy to dismiss the importance of cheerleading. Canada’s digitally native companies were struggling to be taken seriously in Ottawa a decade ago. Former prime minister Stephen Harper pitched in with the Obama administration to save General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC in 2009, but he let Nortel Networks Corp. fail. The technology industry needed a champion, and it found one in Bains.

Bains argued that his programs [legacy assessment] deserve more time. Industrial policy was still derided when he took over the industry department. It’s now mainstream. For now, that’s his legacy. It’s up to his former colleagues to write the final chapter.

I haven’t seen any OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) figures recently but Canada’s industrial R&D (research development) has been on a downward slide for several years compared to many ‘developed’ countries.

A few final comments

I am intrigued by the inclusion of science and technology collaboration with Israeli firms (through the Canadian International Innovation Program) in the 2021 budget. It’s the only country to be specifically identified in this budget’s science funding announcements.

In fact, I can’t recall seeing any other budget of the last 10 years or so with mention of a specific country as a focus for Canadian science and technology collaboration. Perhaps Israeli companies are especially focused on industrial R&D and risk taking and they hope some of that will rub off on Canadians?

For anyone who might be curious as to the name difference between the new Pan-Canadian Genomic Strategy and the National Quantum Strategy, it may be due to the maturity (age) associated with the research field and its business efforts.

GenomeCanada (a Canadian government-funded not-for-profit agency founded in 2000) and its regional centres are the outcome of some national strategizing in the 1990s, from the GenomeCanada 20th anniversary webpage,

In the 1990s, the Human Genome Project captivates the world. But Canada doesn’t have a coordinated national approach. A group of determined Canadian scientists convinces the federal government to make a bold investment in genomics to ensure Canada doesn’t miss out on the benefits of this breakthrough science. Genome Canada is established on February 8, 2000.

While the folks in the quantum world are more obviously competitive (if the two briefs are indicative), there is the Quantum Industry Canada consortium, which was announced on October 6, 2020 on the Cision website,

Industry Association will accelerate the commercialization of Canada’s quantum sector – a $142.4B opportunity for Canadians.

TORONTO, Oct. 6, 2020 /CNW/ – A consortium of Canada’s leading quantum technology companies announced today that they are launching Quantum Industry Canada (QIC), an industry association with a mission to ensure that Canadian quantum innovation and talent is translated into Canadian business success and economic prosperity.

The twenty-four founding members represent Canada’s most commercial-ready quantum technologies, covering applications in quantum computing, quantum sensing, quantum communications, and quantum-safe cryptography.

It’s quite possible this National Quantum Strategy will result in a national not-for-profit agency and, eventually, a pan-Canadian strategy of its own. My impression is that competition in the life sciences research and business concerns is just as intense as in the quantum research and business concerns; the difference (as suggested earlier) lies in the maturity of, as well as, cultural differences between the communities.

If you have the time, the briefs offer an fascinating albeit truncated view into the machinations behind a federal budget: Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance; FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

The inclusion of a section on intellectual property in the budget could seem peculiar. I would have thought that years ago before I learned that governments measure and compare with other government the success of their science and technology efforts by the number of patents that have been filed. There are other measures but intellectual property is very important, as far as governments are concerned. My “Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP” June 28, 2012 posting points to some of the shortcomings, with which we still grapple.

To finally finish this off, Canadian Science Policy Centre has a call for 2021 Budget Editorial Call. (600-800 words)

ETA May 6, 2021: Ooops! This is the end: The Canadian Science Policy Centre has posted recordings of their 2021 federal budget symposium here (according to a May 6, 2021 announcement received via email).

ETA May 19, 2021: Well … here’s one more thing. If you’re interested in how basic funding for the sciences fared, check out Jim R. Woodgett’s May 8, 2021 posting on the Piece of Mind blog.

Girl Trouble—UNESCO’s and the World Economic Forum’s Breaking Through Bias in AI panel on International Women’s Day March 8, 2021

What a Monday morning! United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO; French: Organisation des Nations unies pour l’éducation, la science et la culture) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) hosted a live webcast (which started at 6 am PST or 1500 CET [3 pm in Paris, France]). The session is available online for viewing both here on UNESCO’s Girl Trouble webpage and here on YouTube. It’s about 2.5 hours long with two separate discussions and a question period after each discussion. You will have a 2 minute wait before seeing any speakers or panelists.

Here’s why you might want to check this out (from the Girl Trouble: Breaking Through The Bias in AI page on the UNESCO website),

UNESCO and the World Economic Forum present Girl Trouble: Breaking Through The Bias in AI on International Women’s Day, 8th March, 3:00 pm – 5:30 pm (CET). This timely round-table brings together a range of leading female voices in tech to confront the deep-rooted gender imbalances skewing the development of artificial intelligence. Today critics charge that AI feeds on biased data-sets, amplifying the existing the anti-female biases of our societies, and that AI is perpetuating harmful stereotypes of women as submissive and subservient. Is it any wonder when only 22% of AI professionals globally are women?

Our panelists are female change-makers in AI. From C-suite professionals taking decisions which affect us all, to women innovating new AI tools and policies to help vulnerable groups, to those courageously exposing injustice and algorithmic biases, we welcome:

Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General of Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO, leading the development of UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of AI, the first global standard-setting instrument in the field.
Kay Firth-Butterfield, Keynote speaker. Kay was the world’s first chief AI Ethics Officer. As Head of AI & Machine Learning, and a Member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum, Kay develops new alliances to promote awareness of gender bias in AI;
Ashwini Asokan, CEO of Chennai-based AI company, Mad Street Den. She explores how Artificial Intelligence can be applied meaningfully and made accessible to billions across the globe;
Adriana Bora a researcher using machine learning to boost compliance with the UK and Australian Modern Slavery Acts, and to combat modern slavery, including the trafficking of women;
Anne Bioulac, a member of the Women in Africa Initiative, developing AI-enabled online learning to empower African women to use AI in digital entrepreneurship;
Meredith Broussard, a software developer and associate professor of data journalism at New York University, whose research focuses on AI in investigative reporting, with a particular interest in using data analysis for social good ;
Latifa Mohammed Al-AbdulKarim, named by Forbes magazine as one of 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics, and as one of the women defining AI in the 21st century;
Wanda Munoz, of the Latin American Human Security Network. One of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s 2020 peacebuilders, she raises aware-ness around gender-based violence and autonomous weapons;
Nanjira Sambuli, a Member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation and Advisor for the A+ Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms;
Jutta Williams, Product Manager at Twitter, analyzing how Twitter can improve its models to reduce bias.

There’s an urgent need for more women to participate in and lead the design, development, and deployment of AI systems. Evidence shows that by 2022, 85% of AI projects will deliver erroneous outcomes due to bias.

AI Recruiters searching for female AI specialists online just cannot find them. Companies hiring experts for AI and data science jobs estimate fewer than 1 per cent of the applications they receive come from women. Women and girls are 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers, and 13 times less likely to file for technology patent. They are also less likely to occupy leadership positions in tech companies.

Building on UNESCO’s cutting edge research in this field, and flagship 2019 publication “I’d Blush if I Could”, and policy guidance on gender equality in the 2020 UNESCO Draft Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, the panel will look at:

1. The 4th industrial revolution is on our doorstop, and gender equality risks being set back decades; What more can we do to attract more women to design jobs in AI, and to support them to take their seats on the boards of tech companies.

2. How can AI help us advance women and girls’ rights in society? And how can we solve the problem of algorithmic gender bias in AI systems?

Women’s leadership in the AI Sector at all levels, from big tech to the start-up AI economy in developing countries will be placed under the micro-scope.

Confession: I set the timer correctly but then forget to set the alarm so I watched the last 1.5 hours (I plan to go back and get the first hour later). Here’s a little of what transpired.

Moderator

Kudos to the moderator, Natashya Gutierrez, for her excellent performance; it can’t have been easy to keep track of the panelists and questions for a period of 2.5 hours,

Natashya Gutierrez, Editor-in-Chief APAC, VICE World News

Natashya is an award-winning multimedia journalist and current Editor in Chief of VICE World News in APAC [Asia-Pacific Countries]. She oversees editorial teams across Australia, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Japan and Korea. Natashya’s reporting specialises on women’s rights. At VICE, she hosts Unequal, a series focused on gender inequality in Asia. She is the recipient of several journalism awards including the Society of Publishers in Asia for reporting on women’s issues, and the Asia Journalism Fellowship. Before VICE, she was part of the founding team of Rappler, an online news network based in the Philippines. She has been selected as one of Asia’s emerging young leaders and named a Development Fellow by the Asia Foundation. Natashya is a graduate of Yale University.

First panel discussion

For anyone who’s going to watch the session, don’t forget it takes about two minutes before there’s sound. The first panel was focused on “the female training and recruitment crisis in AI.’

  • The right people

I have a suspicion that Ashwini Asokan’s comment about getting the ‘right people’ to create the algorithms and make decisions about AI was not meant the way it might sound. I will have to listen again but, at a guess, I think she was suggesting that a bunch of 25 – 35 year old developers (mostly male and working in monoculture environments) is not going to be cognizant of how their mathematical decisions will impact real world lives.

So, getting the ‘right people’ means more inclusive hiring.

  • Is AI always the best solution?

In all the talk about AI, it’s assumed that this technology is the best solution to all problems. One of the panelists (Nanjira Sambuli) suggested an analogue solution (e. g., a book) might be a better solution on occasion.

There are some things that people are better at than AI (can’t remember which panelist said this). That comment hints at something which seems heretical. It challenges the notion that technology is always better than a person.

I once had someone at a bank explain to me that computers were very smart (by implication, smarter than me)—30 years ago The teller was talking about a database.

Adriana Bora (I think) suggested that lived experience should be considered when putting together consultative groups and developer groups.

This theme of AI not being the best solution for all problems came up again in the second panel discussion

Second panel discussion

The second panel was focused on “innovative AI-based solutions to address bias against women.”

  • AI is math and it’s hard

It’s surprisingly easy to forget that AI is math. Meredith Broussard pointed out that most of us (around the world) have a very Hollywood idea about what AI is.

Broussard noted that AI has its limits and there are times when it’s not the right choice.

She made an interesting point in her comment about AI being hard. I don’t think she meant to echo the old cliché ‘math is hard, so it’s not for girls’. The comment seemed to speak to the breadth and depth of the AI sector. Simultaneous with challenging mathematics, we need to take into account so much more than was imagined in the Industrial Revolution when ecological consequences were unimagined and inequities often taken as god-given.

  • Inequities and language

Natashya Gutierrez, the moderator, noted that AI doesn’t create bias, it magnifies it.

One of the panelists, Jutta Williams (Twitter), noted later that algorithms are designed to favour certain types of language, e. g., information presented as factual rather than emotive. That’s how you get more attention on social media platforms. In essence, the bias in the algorithms was not towards males but towards the way they tend to communicate.

  • Laziness

Describing engineers as ‘lazy’, Meredith Broussard added this about the mindset, ‘write once, run anywhere’.

A colleague, some years ago, drew my attention to the problem. She was unsuccessfully trying to get the developers to fix a problem in the code. They simply couldn’t be bothered. It wasn’t an interesting problem and there was no reward for fixing it.

I’m having a problem now where I suspect engineers/developers don’t want to tweak or correct code in WordPress. It’s the software I use to create my blog postings and I use tags to make those postings easier to find.

Sometime in December 2018 I updated my blog software to their latest version. Many problems ensued but there is one which persists to this day. I can’t tag any new words with apostrophes in them (very common in French). The system refuses to save them.

Previous versions of WordPress were quite capable of saving words with apostrophes. Those words are still in my ‘tag database’.

  • Older generation has less tech savvy

Adriana Bora suggested that the older generation should also be considered in discussions about AI and inclusivity. I’m glad to hear her mention.

Unfortunately, she seemed to be under the impression that seniors don’t know much about technology.

Yes and no. Who do you think built and developed the technologies you are currently using? Probably your parents and grandparents. Networks were first developed in the early to mid-1960s. The Internet is approximately 40 years old. (You can get the details in the History of the Internet entry on Wikipedia.)

Yes, I’ve made that mistake about seniors/elders too.

It’s possible that person over … what age is that? Over 55? Over 60? Over 65? Over 75? and so on … Anyway, that person may not have had much experience with the digital world or it may be dated experience but that assumption is problematic.

As an antidote, here’s one of my favourite blogs, Grandma Got STEM. It’s mostly written by people reminiscing about their STEM mothers and grandmothers.

  • Bits and bobs

There seemed to be general agreement that there needs to be more transparency about the development of AI and what happens in the ‘AI black box’.

Gabriela Ramos, keynote speaker, commented that transparency needs to be paired up with choice otherwise it won’t do much good.

After recounting a distressing story about how activists have had their personal revealed in various networks, Wanda Munoz noted that AI can be used for good.

The concerns are not theoretical and my final comments

Munoz, of course, brought a real life example of bad things happening but I’d like to reinforce it with one more example. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a January 13, 2021 news article by Leo Kelion broke the news that Huawei, a Chinese technology company, had technology that could identify ethnic groups (Note: Links have been removed),

A Huawei patent has been brought to light for a system that identifies people who appear to be of Uighur origin among images of pedestrians.

The filing is one of several of its kind involving leading Chinese technology companies, discovered by a US research company and shared with BBC News.

Huawei had previously said none of its technologies was designed to identify ethnic groups.

It now plans to alter the patent.

The company indicated this would involve asking the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) – the country’s patent authority – for permission to delete the reference to Uighurs in the Chinese-language document.

Uighur people belong to a mostly Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly in Xinjiang province, in north-western China.

Government authorities are accused of using high-tech surveillance against them and detaining many in forced-labour camps, where children are sometimes separated from their parents.

Beijing says the camps offer voluntary education and training.

Huawei’s patent was originally filed in July 2018, in conjunction with the Chinese Academy of Sciences .

It describes ways to use deep-learning artificial-intelligence techniques to identify various features of pedestrians photographed or filmed in the street.

But the document also lists attributes by which a person might be targeted, which it says can include “race (Han [China’s biggest ethnic group], Uighur)”.

More than one company has been caught out, do read the January 13, 2021 news article in its entirety.

I did not do justice to the depth and breadth of the discussion. (I noticed I missed a few panelists and it’s entirely my fault; I should have woken up sooner. I apologize for the omissions.)

If you have the time and the inclination, do go to the Girl Trouble: Breaking Through The Bias in AI page on the UNESCO website where in addition to the panel video, you can find a number of related reports:

Happy International Women’s Day 2021.