Category Archives: business

Walrus from Space project (citizen science)

Image:: Norwegian Atlantic Walrus. Photo: Tor Lund / WWF [Downloaded from: https://eminetra.co.uk/climate-change-the-walrus-from-space-project-is-calling-on-the-general-public-to-help-search-for-animals-on-satellite-imagery-climate-news/755984/]

Yesterday (October 14, 2021), the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) announced their Walrus from Space project in a press release,

WWF and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are seeking the public’s help to search for walrus in thousands of satellite images taken from space, with the aim of learning more about how walrus will be impacted by the climate crisis. It’s hoped half a million people worldwide will join the new ‘Walrus from Space’ research project, a census of Atlantic walrus and walrus from the Laptev Sea, using satellite images provided by space and intelligence company Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe.

Walrus are facing the reality of the climate crisis: their Arctic home is warming almost three times faster than the rest of the world and roughly 13% of summer sea ice is disappearing per decade.

From the comfort of their own homes, aspiring conservationists around the world can study the satellite pictures online, spot areas where walrus haul out onto land, and then count them. The data collected in this census of Atlantic and Laptev walrus will give scientists a clearer picture of how each population is doing—without disturbing the animals. The data will also help inform management decisions aimed at conservation efforts for the species.

Walrus use sea ice for resting and to give birth to their young. As sea ice diminishes, more walrus are forced to seek refuge on land, congregating for the chance to rest. Overcrowded beaches can have fatal consequences; walrus are easily frightened, and when spooked they stampede towards the water, trampling one another in their panic. Resting on land (as opposed to sea ice) may also force walrus to swim further and expand more energy to reach their food—food which in turn is being negatively impacted by the warming and acidification of the ocean.

In addition walrus can also be disturbed by shipping traffic and industrial development as the loss of sea ice makes the Arctic more accessible. Walrus are almost certainly going to be impacted by the climate crisis, which could result in significant population declines.

Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, said:

“Walrus are an iconic species of great cultural significance to the people of the Arctic, but climate change is melting their icy home. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the climate and nature emergency, but this project enables individuals to take action to understand a species threatened by the climate crisis, and to help to safeguard their future. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there; the climate crisis is a global problem, bigger than any person, species or region. Ahead of hosting this year’s global climate summit, the UK must raise its ambition and keep all of its climate promises—for the sake of the walrus, and the world.”

Previous population estimates are based upon the best data and knowledge available, but there are challenges associated with working with marine mammals in such a vast, remote and largely inaccessible place. This project will build upon the knowledge of Indigenous communities, using satellite technology to provide an up-to-date count of Atlantic and Laptev walrus populations.

Hannah Cubaynes, wildlife from space research associate at British Antarctic Survey, said:

“Assessing walrus populations by traditional methods is very difficult as they live in extremely remote areas, spend much of their time on the sea ice and move around a lot, Satellite images can solve this problem as they can survey huge tracts of coastline to assess where walrus are and help us count the ones that we find. “However, doing that for all the Atlantic and Laptev walrus will take huge amounts of imagery, too much for a single scientist or small team, so we need help from thousands of citizen scientists to help us learn more about this iconic animal.”

Earlier this year Cub Scouts from across the UK became walrus spotters to test the platform ahead of its public release. The Scouts have been a partner of WWF since the early 1970s, and over 57 million scouts globally are engaged in environmental projects.

Cub Scout Imogen Scullard, age 9, said:

“I love learning about the planet and how it works. We need to protect it from climate change. We are helping the planet by doing the walrus count with space satellites, which is really cool. It was a hard thing to do but we stuck at it”

The ‘Walrus From Space’ project, which is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, as well as RBC Tech For Nature and WWF supporters, aims to recruit more than 500,000 citizen scientists over the next five years. Over the course of the project counting methods will be continually refined and improved as data is gathered.

Laura Chow, head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said:

“We’re delighted that players’ support is bringing this fantastic project to life. We encourage everyone to get involved in finding walrus so they can play a part in helping us better understand the effects of climate change on this species and their ecosystem. “Players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting this project as part of our Postcode Climate Challenge initiative, which is providing 12 charities with an additional £24 million for projects tackling climate change this year.”

Aspiring conservationists can help protect the species by going to wwf.org.uk/walrusfromspace where they can register to participate, and then be guided through a training module before joining the walrus census.

Download our FAQ

The WWF has released a charming video invitation”Become A Walrus Detective,” (Note: It may be a little over the top for some),

The WWF has a Learn about Walrus from Space webpage, which features the video above and includes a registration button.

Is the United Kingdom an Arctic nation?

No. They are not. (You can check here on the Arctic Countries webpage of The Arctic Institute website.)

Nonetheless and leaving aside that the Arctic and the Antarctic are literally polar opposites, I gather that the British Government in the form of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is quite interested in the Arctic, viz.: the Walrus from Space project.

If you keep digging you’ll find a chain of UK government agencies, from the BAS About page (at the bottom), Note: Links have been removed,,

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

NERC is part of UK Research and Innovation

Keep digging (from the UK Research and Innovation entry on Wikipedia), Note: Links have been removed,

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a non-departmental public body of the Government of the United Kingdom that directs research and innovation funding, funded through the science budget of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [emphases mine].

Interesting, non?

There doesn’t have to be a sinister connection between a government agency devoted to supporting business and industry and a climate change project. If we are to grapple with climate change in a significant way, we will need cooperation from many groups and coutnries (some of which may have been adversaries in the past).

Of course, the problem with the business community is that efforts aimed at the public good are often publicity stunts.

For anyone curious about the businesses mentioned in the press release, Maxar Technologies can be found here, Maxar’s DigitalGlobe here, and RBC (Royal of Bank of Canada) Tech for Nature here.

BTW, I love that walrus picture at the beginning of this posting.

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.

Nanotechnology in agriculture: an introduction and a 15th anniversary

It’s not often that I publish a posting meant for beginners since I tend to take an understanding of nanotechnology for granted. For anyone who has stumbled across this posting and needs an introduction to nanotechnology, M Cynthia Goh’s* (professor, Chemistry, University of Toronto) April 25, 2021 essay about nanotechnology and agriculture, on The Conversation website, provides a good entry point (Note 1: The excerpts are not in the order in which they appear in the essay Note 2: Links have been removed) ,

Nanotechnology is the science of objects that are a few nanometres — billionths of a metre — across. At this size, objects acquire unique properties. For example, the surface area of a swarm of nanoscale particles is enormous compared to the same mass collected into single large-scale clump.

Varying the size and other properties of nanoscale objects gives us an unprecedented ability to create precision surfaces with highly customized properties.

Agriculture is one of the oldest human inventions, but nanotech provides modern innovations that could dramatically improve the efficiency of our food supply and reduce the environmental impact of its production.

Agriculture comes with costs that farmers are only too familiar with: Crops require substantial amounts of water, land and fuel to produce. Fertilizers and pesticides are needed to achieve the necessary high crop yields, but their use comes with environmental side effects, even as many farmers explore how new technologies can reduce their impact.

Custom-made nanoscale systems can use precision chemistry to achieve high-efficiency delivery of fertilizers or pesticides. These active ingredients can be encapsulated in a fashion similar to what happens in targeted drug delivery. The encapsulation technique can also be used to increase the amount dissolved in water, reducing the need for large amounts.

Current applications

Starpharma, a pharmaceutical company, got into this game a few years ago, when it set up a division to apply its nanotechnological innovations to the agriculture sector. The company has since sold its agrochemical business.

Psigryph is another innovative nanotech company in agriculture. Its technology uses biodegradable nanostructures derived from Montmonercy sour cherries extract to deliver bioactive molecules across cell membranes in plants, animals and humans.

My lab has spent years working in nanoscience, and I am proud to see our fundamental understanding of manipulating polymer encapsulation at the nanoscale make its way to applications in agriculture. A former student, Darren Anderson, is the CEO of Vive Crop Protection [emphasis mine], named one of Canada’s top growing firms: they take chemical and biological pesticides and suspend them in “nanopackets” — which act as incredibly small polymer shuttles — to make them easily reach their target. The ingredients can be controlled and precisely directed when applied on crops.

*M Cynthia Goh was a co-founder of Vive Crop Protection but is not actively involved in the company. She receives funding from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) Canada and the Ontario Centre of Innovation.

Vive Crop Protection’s 15th anniversary

March 30, 2021 marked 15 years for Vive Crop Protection (formerly Vive Nano) according to the company’s March 30, 2021 news release. It’s been a number of years since I’ve written about the company and I’m glad to see they seem to be thriving. Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Darren Anderson (he was formerly the company’s Chief Technical Officer) was interviewed on camera by Kim Bolton for BNN Bloomberg; a link to the video is available from this April 29, 2021 Vive Crop news webpage.

(BTW, BNN Bloomberg is “(formerly Business News Network and Report on Business Television) is a Canadian English language specialty channel owned by Bell Media. It broadcasts programming related to business and financial news and analysis. Since April 30, 2018, the network has operated as a partner of the U.S. business channel Bloomberg Television, …” See more about BNN Bloomberg in its Wikipedia entry.)

For anyone interested in Vive Crop’s technology, see my December 31, 2013, posting.

Graphene increases its market penetration in 2025?

It seems that I’m not the only one wondering if the European Union’s gamble (1B Euros paid out over 10 years through a research initiative known as the Graphene Flagship) will pay off. A January 25, 2021 news item on Nanowerk announced a study on that topic (Note: A link has been removed),

What happened to the promised applications of graphene and related materials? Thanks to initiatives like the European Union’s Graphene Flagship and heavy investments by leading industries, graphene manufacturing is mature enough to produce prototypes and some real-life niche applications. Now, researchers at Graphene Flagship partner The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe, Germany, have published two papers that roadmap the expected future mass introduction of graphene and related materials in the market.

The January 25, 2021 Graphene Flagship press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, suggests the gamble will pay off,

Back in 2004, graphene was made by peeling off atomically thin layers from a graphite block. Now, thanks to the advances pioneered by the Graphene Flagship, among others, we can produce high quantities of graphene with a reliable and reproducible quality. Furthermore, the Graphene Flagship has driven the discovery of thousands of layered materials, complementary to graphene in properties and applications, and has spearheaded efforts to standardise the fabrication of graphene to ensure consistency and trustworthiness.

The new publications by Graphene Flagship researchers at Fraunhofer ISI, just issued by IOP Publishing’s journal 2D Materials, review the latest outcomes of the Technology and Innovation Roadmap, a process that explores the different pathways towards industrialisation and commercialisation of graphene and related materials. In particular, these articles summarise the impact that graphene and related materials will have transforming the manufacturing process and triggering the emergence of new value chains.

“Our final goal is seeing graphene and related materials fully integrated in day-to-day products and manufacturing,” says Henning Döscher from Graphene Flagship partner Fraunhofer ISI, who leads the Graphene Flagship Roadmap Team. “We are continuously analysing scientific and technological advances in the field as well as their capacity to fulfil future industrial needs. Our first Graphene Roadmap Brief articles summarise some of the most exciting results,” he adds. “Graphene and related materials add value throughout the value chain, from enhancing and enabling new materials to improving individual components and, eventually, end products.” The most immediate applications of graphene, such as composites, inks and coatings are already commercially available, as highlighted by the Graphene Flagship product gallery. The industry will soon be ready to absorb and implement the latest innovations and start manufacturing batteries, solar panels, electronics, photonic and communication devices and medical technologies.

“The market demand for graphene has almost quadrupled in the last two years,” explains Thomas Reiss from Graphene Flagship partner Fraunhofer ISI, and co-leader of the roadmap endeavour. “By strengthening standards and creating tailored high-quality materials, we expect to go beyond niche products and applications to broad market penetration by 2025,” he adds. “Then, graphene could be incorporated in ubiquitous commodities such as tyres, batteries and electronics.”

The dawning decade seems decisive in the road to market of graphene and related materials. “By 2030 we will see if graphene is really as disruptive as silicon or steel,” says Döscher. “The Graphene Flagship has already shown that graphene is useful for numerous applications,” he adds. “Now, we need to ensure that Europe stays a leader in the field, to ensure we benefit from the economic and societal impact of developing such an innovation.”

Alexander Tzalenchuk, Graphene Flagship Leader for Industrialisation, says: “The publication of the Graphene Flagship Roadmap Briefs is a timely and welcome development for industries innovating with graphene and related materials. Improving trust and confidence in graphene-enabled products is a key prerequisite for industrial uptake. Informed by the market analysis and technology assessment of the Graphene Flagship Roadmap, this further contributes to our agenda providing expert validation of the characteristics of graphene and related materials, graphene-enhanced components, devices and systems, by developing consensus-based and accepted international standards.”

Kari Hjelt, Head of Innovation of the Graphene Flagship, adds: “We see a strong increased interest in graphene by several branches of industry as witnessed by the eleven Spearhead Projects of the Graphene Flagship, all led by industry partners. The first mass applications pave the way to emerging high value-added areas in electronics and biomedical applications. In the near future, we will start to witness the transformative power of graphene in many industries. The updates from the Technology and Innovation Roadmap team sheds light on the road ahead for both research and industrial communities alike.”

It’s hard not to notice that those with the most to gain (Graphene Flagship) are claiming success. That said, the two roadmap briefs are being made freely available and I imagine knowledgeable parties will be happy to offer critiques,

Graphene Roadmap Briefs (No. 1): Innovation interfaces of the Graphene Flagship by Henning Döscher and Thomas Reiß. 2D Materials, Volume 8 DOI: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2053-1583/abddcc Accepted Manuscript online 20 January 2021 • © 2020 IOP Publishing Ltd

Graphene Roadmap Briefs (No. 2): Industrialization status and prospects 2020 by Henning Döscher, Thomas Schmaltz, Christoph Neef, Axel Thielmann, and Thomas Reiß. 2D Materials, Volume 8; DOI: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2053-1583/abddcd Accepted Manuscript online 20 January 2021 • © 2020 IOP Publishing Ltd

Both of these papers are open access.

Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist

I’ll start off with the COVID-19 billionaire since I imagine that excites the most interest.

AbCellera billionaire

No less an authority than the business magazine Forbes has produced a list of COVID-19 billionaires in its December 23, 2020 article (Meet The 50 Doctors, Scientists And Healthcare Entrepreneurs Who Became Pandemic Billionaires In 2020) by Giacomo Tognini (Note: Links have been removed),

Nearly a year after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, the world could be nearing the beginning of the end of a pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million people. Vaccination for Covid-19 is underway in the United States and the United Kingdom, and promising antibody treatments could help doctors fight back against the disease more effectively. Tied to those breakthroughs: a host of new billionaires who have emerged in 2020, their fortunes propelled by a stock market surge as investors flocked to companies involved in the development of vaccines, treatments, medical devices and everything in between.

Altogether, Forbes found 50 new billionaires in the healthcare sector in 2020. …

Carl Hansen

Net worth: $2.9 billion

Citizenship: Canada

Source of wealth: AbCellera

Hansen is the CEO and cofounder of Vancouver-based AbCellera, a biotech firm that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify the most promising antibody treatments for diseases. He founded the company in 2012. Until 2019 he also worked as a professor at the University of British Columbia, but shifted to focus full-time on AbCellera. That decision seems to have paid off, and Hansen’s 23% stake earned him a spot in the billionaire club after AbCellera’s successful listing on the Nasdaq on December 11. The U.S. government has ordered 300,000 doses of bamlanivimab, an antibody AbCellera discovered in partnership with Eli Lilly that received FDA approval as a Covid-19 treatment in November [2020].

Hansen was a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where he founded AbCellera. From https://innovation.ubc.ca/about/news/spin-company-abcelleras-antibody-discovery-leads-covid-19-treatment (Note: A link has been removed),

AbCellera, a local biotechnology company founded at UBC, has developed a method that can search immune responses more deeply than any other technology. Using a microfluidic technology developed at the Michael Smith Laboratories, advanced immunology, protein chemistry, performance computing, and machine learning, AbCellera is changing the game for antibody therapeutics.

I believe a great deal of research that is commercialized was initially funded by taxpayers and I cannot recall any entrepreneurs here in Canada or elsewhere acknowledging that help in a big way. Should you be able to remember any comments of that type, please do let me know in the Comments.

Just prior to this financial bonanza, AbCellera was touting two new board members, John Montalbano on Nov. 18, 2020 and Peter Thiel on Nov. 19, 2020.

Here’s a bit about Mr. Montalbano from a Nov. 18, 2020 AbCellera news release (Note: A link has been removed),

November 18, 2020 – AbCellera, a technology company that searches, decodes, and analyzes natural immune systems to find antibodies that can be developed to prevent and treat disease, today announced the appointment of John Montalbano to its Board of Directors. Mr. Montalbano will serve as the Chair of the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors.

Mr. Montalbano is Principal of Tower Beach Capital Ltd. and serves on the boards of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Aritzia Inc., and the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. His previous appointments include the former Vice Chair of RBC Wealth Management and CEO of RBC Global Asset Management (RBC GAM). When Mr. Montalbano retired as CEO of RBC GAM in 2015, it was among the largest 50 asset managers worldwide with $370 billion under management and offices in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong.

Montalbano has been on this blog before in a Nov. 4, 2015 posting. If you scroll down to the subsection “Justin Trudeau and his British Columbia connection,” you’ll see mention of Montalbano’s unexpected exit as member and chair of UBC’s board of governors.

The next board member to hop on the proverbial path to riches was announced in a Nov. 19, 2020 AbCellera news release,

AbCellera, a technology company that searches, decodes, and analyzes natural immune systems to find antibodies that can be developed to prevent and treat disease, today announced the appointment of Peter Thiel to its Board of Directors.

“Peter has been a valued AbCellera investor and brings deep experience in scaling global technology companies,” said Carl Hansen, Ph.D., CEO of AbCellera. “We share his optimistic vision for the future, faith in technological progress, and long-term view on company building. We’re excited to have him join our board and look forward to working with him over the coming years.”

Mr. Thiel is a technology entrepreneur, investor, and author. He was a co-founder and CEO of PayPal, a company that he took public before it was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Mr. Thiel subsequently co-founded Palantir Technologies in 2004, where he continues to serve as Chairman. As a technology investor, Mr. Thiel made the first outside investment in Facebook, where he has served as a director since 2005, and provided early funding for LinkedIn, Yelp, and dozens of technology companies. He is a partner at Founders Fund, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that has funded companies including SpaceX and Airbnb.

“AbCellera is executing a long-term plan to make biotech move faster. I am proud to help them as they raise our expectations of what’s possible,” said Mr. Thiel.

Some Canadian business journalists got very excited over Thiel’s involvement in particular. Perhaps they were anticipating this December 10, 2020 AbCellera news release announcing an initial public offering. Much money seems to have been made not least for Mr. Montalbano, Mr. Thiel, and Mr. Hansen.

As for Mr. Thiel and taxes, I don’t know for certain but can infer that he’s not a big fan from this portion of his Wikipedia entry,

Thiel is an ideological libertarian,[108] though more recently he has espoused support for national conservatism[109] and criticized libertarian attitudes towards free trade[110] and big tech.[109]

My understanding is that libertarians object to taxes and prefer as little government structure as possible.

In any event, it seems that COVID-19 has been quite the bonanza for some people. If you’re curious you can find out more about AbCellera here.

Onto Avo Media and how it has contributed to the AbCellera story.

Avo Media, The Tyee, and Science Telephone

Vancouver (Canada)-based Avo Media describes itself this way on its homepage,

We make documentary, educational, and branded content.

We specialize in communicating science and other complex concepts in a clear, engaging way.

I think that description boils down to videos and podcasts. There’s no mention of AbCellera as one of their clients but they do list The Tyee, which in a July 1, 2020 posting (The Vancouver Company Turning Blood into a COVID Treatment: A Tyee Video) by Mashal Butt hosts a video about AbCellera,

The world anxiously awaits a vaccine to end the pandemic. But having a treatment could save countless lives in the meantime.

This Tyee video explains how Vancouver biotech company AbCellera, with funding from the federal government, is racing to develop an antibody-based therapy treatment as quickly as possible.

Experts — immunologist Ralph Pantophlet at Simon Fraser University, and co-founder and COO of AbCellera Véronique Lecault — explain what an antibody treatment is and how it can protect us from COVID-19.

It is not a cure, but it can help save lives as we wait for the cure.

This video was made in partnership with Vancouver’s Avo Media team of Jesse Lupini, Koby Michaels and Lucas Kavanagh.

It’s a video with a good explanation of AbCellera’s research. Interestingly, the script notes that the Canadian federal government gave the company over $175M for its COVID-19 work.

Why The Tyee?

While Avo Media is a local company, I notice that Jessica Yingling is listed in the final credits for the video. Yingling founded Little Dog Communications, which is based in both California and Utah. If you read the AbCellera news releases, you’ll see that she’s the media contact.

Is there a more unlikely media outlet to feature a stock market star, which probably will be making billions of dollars from this pandemic, than The Tyee? Politically, its ideology could be described as the polar opposite to libertarian ideology.

I wonder what the thought process was for the media placement and how someone based in San Diego (check out her self description on this Twitter feed @jyingling) came up with the idea?

Science Telephone

Avo Media’s latest project seems to be a podcast series, Science Telephone (this link is to the Spotify platform). Here’s more about the series and the various platforms where episodes can be found (from the Avo Media, Our Work, Science Telephone webpage) ,

Science Telephone is a new podcast that tests how well the science holds up when comedians get their hands onto it

Laugh while you learn, as the classic game of telephone is repurposed for scientific research. Each episode, one scientist explains their research to a comedian, who then has to explain it to the next comedian, and so on until it’s almost unrecognizable. See what sticks and what changes, with a rotating cast of brilliant scientists and hysterical comedians.

See a preview of the show below, or visit www.sciencetelephone.com to subscribe or listen to past episodes.

Science telephone is available on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts

I have included the Science Telephone preview here,

As we move towards the end of this year and this pandemic, it’s time to enjoy a little science comedy.

Gene therapy in Canada; a November 2020 report and two events in December 2020

There’s a lot of action, albeit quiet and understated, in the Canadian gene therapy ‘discussion’. One major boost to the discussion was the Nov. 3, 2020 release of a report by the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA), “From Research to Reality; The Expert Panel on the Approval and Use of Somatic Gene Therapies in Canada.”

Dec. 2 – 3, 2020 Breaking Through

Another boost is the the free and virtual, upcoming 2020 Gairdner Ontario International Symposium “Breaking Through: Delivering on the Promise of Gene Therapy“; an international symposium on gene therapy research and practice, which will feature a presentation on the CCA’s report,

Breaking Through brings together Canadian and international leaders to explore the past, present, and future of somatic gene therapy research and practice. This two-day virtual event will examine the successes, challenges and opportunities from the bench to the bedside. It will also feature:

  • Speaker sessions from Canadian and international researchers at the forefront of gene therapy research.
  • A panel discussion exploring the opportunities and challenges facing Canadian scientists, regulators, clinicians, decision-makers, and patients (Presented by NRC).
  • A presentation and Expert Panel discussion on the Council of Canadian Academies’ latest report, From Research to Reality, and a closing panel discussion about the future of gene therapies and gene editing (Presented by Genome Canada).

The title for the CCA report bears an uncanny resemblance to the name for a Canadian initiative highlighting science research, Research2Reality (R2R). (If you’re curious, you can check out my past postings on R2R by using ‘Research2Reality’ as the term for the blog’s search engine.

Glybera

This name stood out: Michael Hayden (scroll down to his name and click), one of the featured speakers for this Dec. 2 – 3, 2020 event, reminded me of the disturbing Glybera story,

Dr. Hayden identified the first mutations underlying lipoprotein lipase (LPL) deficiency and developed gene therapy approaches to treat this condition, the first approved gene therapy (Glybera) in the western world.

Kelly Crowe’s Nov. 17, 2018 story for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) lays it out,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia spent decades developing the treatment for people born with a genetic mutation that causes lipoprotein lipase defficiency (LPLD).

If you have the time, do read Crowe’s Nov. 17, 2018 story but as I warned in another post, it’s heartbreaking.

Fora brief summary, the company which eventually emerged with the licensing rights to Glybera, charged $1m per dose and a single dose is good for 10 years. It seems governments are reluctant to approve the cost and for many individuals, it’s an impossible price to meet, every 10 years. So, the drug is dead. Or perhaps not? Take a look at the symposium’s agenda (scroll down) for description,

GLYBERA REINVENTED: A WINDING STORY OF COMMITMENT, CREATIVITY, AND INNOVATION

Michael Hayden, MB, ChB, PhD, FRCP(C), FRSC, C.M., O.B.C University Killam Professor, Senior Scientist, Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, Department of Medical Genetics,

University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC)

Money issues

One theme from the agenda jumped out at me: money. The focus seems to be largely on accessibility and costs. The Nov. 3, 2020 CCA news release (also on EurekAlert) about the report also prominently featured costs,

Gene therapies are being approved for use in Canada, but could strain healthcare budgets and exacerbate existing treatment inequities [emphasis mine] across the country. However, there are opportunities to control spending, streamline approvals and support fair access through innovation, coordination and collaboration, according to a new expert panel report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA).

“Rapid scientific advances mean potentially life-changing treatments are approaching the clinic at an accelerated pace,” said Janet Rossant, PhD, C.C., FRSC, and Chair of the Expert Panel. “These new therapies, however, pose a number of challenges in terms of their introduction into the Canadian healthcare system and ensuring access to those who would most benefit.”

Gene therapies and gene editing

Before moving on, you might find it useful to know (if you don’t already) that gene therapy can be roughly divided into somatic cell gene therapy and germline gene therapy as per the Gene Therapy entry in Wikipedia.

Two other items on the symposium’s agenda (scroll down) drew my attention,

Genome editing and the promise for future therapies

Ronald Cohn, MD, FACMG, FCAHS President and CEO,
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) (Toronto, ON)

COMING SOON: THE FUTURE OF GENE EDITING AND GENE THERAPIES

Presented by: Genome Canada

Rob Annan, PhD President and CEO,
Genome Canada (Ottawa, ON)

R. Alta Charo, J.D. Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law & Bioethics,
University of Wisconsin Law School (Madison, USA)

Jay Ingram, C.M. Science broadcaster and writer, Former Co-Host, Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” (Calgary, AB)

Vardit Ravitsky, PhD, FCAHS Full Professor, Bioethics Program, Department of Social and Preventative Medicine, School of Public Health, Université de Montréal; President, International Association of Bioethics (Montréal, QC)

Janet Rossant, PhD, C.C., FRSC President,
Gairdner Foundation (Toronto, ON) [also a member of the CCA expert panel for report on somatic cell therapies ‘From research to reality …’)

Genome editing, by the way and if you don’t know, is also known as gene editing. The presence of the word ‘future’ in both the presentations has my antennae quivering. Could they be hinting at germline editing possibilities? At this time, the research is illegal in Canada.

If you don’t happen to know, somatic gene editing, covered in the CCA report, does not affect future generations as opposed to germline gene editing, which does. Should you be curious about the germline gene editing discussion in Canada, I covered as much information as I could uncover in an April 26, 2019 posting on topic.

Jay Ingram’s presence on the panel sponsored by Genome Canada is a bit of a surprise.

I saw him years ago as the moderator for a panel presentation sponsored by Genome British Columbia. The discussion was about genetics and ethics, which was illustrated by clips from the television programme, ReGenesis (from its IMDB entry),

[Fictional] Geneticist David Sandstrom is the chief scientist at the prestigious virology/micro-biology NORBAC laboratory, a joint enterprise between the USA, Canada and Mexico for countering bio-terrorism.

Ingram (BA in microbiology and an MA that’s not identified in his Wikipedia entry) was a television science presenter for a number of years and has continued to work in the field of science communication. He didn’t seem all that knowledgeable about genetics when he moderated the ReGenesis panel but perhaps his focus will be about the communication element?

For anyone interested in attending the free and virtual “Breaking Through” event, you can register here.

CAR-T cell therapies (a type of somatic cell therapy)

One final note, the first week of December seems to be gene therapy week in Canada. There is another free and virtual event, the second session of the Summit for Cancer Immunotherapy: 2020 Speaker Series (Hosted by BioCanRx, Canada’s Immunotherapy Network), Note: I made a few changes to make this excerpt a bit easier to read,

Session Two: Developing better CAR T-Cell Therapies by engaging patients, performing systematic reviews and assessing real-world and economic evidence
Wednesday, December 9, 1:30 pm – 3:15pm EST [emphasis mine]

Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy is a personalized immunotherapy, currently being assessed in a Canadian Phase I/II clinical trial to test safety and feasibility for relapsed/refractory blood cancer (CD19+ Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma).

This virtual seminar will provide an overview of a multidisciplinary team’s collaborative efforts to synthesize evidence for the development of this clinical trial protocol, using a novel approach (the ‘Excelerator’ model). This approach involved the completion of a systematic review (objective review of existing trial data), engagement of patients and clinicians, and drawing from real world and economic evidence.

Dr. Fergusson will provide a brief introduction. Dr. Kednapa Thavorn will discuss the team’s use of economic modelling to select trial factors to maximize economic feasibility of the therapy, and Mackenzie Wilson (HQP) will discuss the current efforts and future directions to engage diverse stakeholders to inform this work. Gisell Castillo (HQP) will speak about the interviews that were conducted with patients and hematologists to identify potential barriers and enablers to participation and recruitment to the trial.

The team will also discuss two ongoing projects which build on this work. Dr. Lalu will provide an overview on the team’s patient engagement program throughout development of the trial protocol and plans to expand this program to other immunotherapy trials. Joshua Montroy (HQP) will also discuss ongoing work building on the initial systematic review, to use individual participant data meta-analysis to identify factors that may impact the efficacy of CAR-T cell therapy.

Dr. Justin Presseau will moderate the question and answer period.

And there’s this,

Who should attend?

Scientific and health care community including researchers, clinicians and HQP along with patients and caregivers. Note: There will be a plain language overview before the session begins and an opportunity to ask questions after the discussion.

If you want to know more about CAR T-cell therapy, sometimes called gene or cell therapy or immune effect cell therapy, prior to the Dec., 9, 2020 event, this page on the cancer.org website should prove helpful.

Congratulations to winners of 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier & Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna (CRISPR-cas9)

It’s possible there’s a more dramatic development in the field of contemporary gene-editing but it’s indisputable that CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) -cas9 (CRISPR-associated 9 [protein]) ranks very highly indeed.

The technique, first discovered (or developed) in 2012, has brought recognition in the form of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to CRISPR’s two discoverers, Emanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.

An October 7, 2020 news item on phys.org announces the news,

The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two researchers Wednesday [October 7, 2020] for a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA, the code of life—technology already being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States won for developing CRISPR-cas9, a very simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat diseases, and “many are very promising,” according to Victor Dzau, president of the [US] National Academy of Medicine.

“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.

The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm—changes that can be passed on to future generations.

Unusually for phys.org, this October 7, 2020 news item is not a simple press/news release reproduced in its entirety but a good overview of the researchers’ accomplishments and a discussion of some of the issues associated with CRISPR along with the press release at the end.

I have covered some CRISPR issues here including intellectual property (see my March 15, 2017 posting titled, “CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now‘) and designer babies (as exemplified by the situation with Dr. He Jiankui; see my July 28, 2020 post titled, “July 2020 update on Dr. He Jiankui (the CRISPR twins) situation” for more details about it).

An October 7, 2020 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company provides a business perspective (Note: A link has been removed),

Needless to say, research by the two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today has the potential to change the course of humanity. And with that potential comes lots of VC money and companies vying for patents on techniques and therapies derived from Charpentier’s and Doudna’s research.

One such company is Doudna’s Editas Medicine [according to my search, the only company associated with Doudna is Mammoth Biosciences, which she co-founded], while others include Caribou Biosciences, Intellia Therapeutics, and Casebia Therapeutics. Given the world-changing applications—and the amount of revenue such CRISPR therapies could bring in—it’s no wonder that such rivalry is often heated (and in some cases has led to lawsuits over the technology and its patents).

As Doudna explained in her book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, cowritten by Samuel H. Sternberg …, “… —but we could also have woolly mammoths, winged lizards, and unicorns.” And as for that last part, she made clear, “No, I am not kidding.”

Everybody makes mistakes and the reference to Editas Medicine is the only error I spotted. You can find out more about Mammoth Biosciences here and while Dr. Doudna’s comment, “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” is laudable it would seem she wishes to profit from the discovery. Mammoth Biosciences is a for-profit company as can be seen at the end of the Mammoth Biosciences’ October 7, 2020 congratulatory news release,

About Mammoth Biosciences

Mammoth Biosciences is harnessing the diversity of nature to power the next-generation of CRISPR products. Through the discovery and development of novel CRISPR systems, the company is enabling the full potential of its platform to read and write the code of life. By leveraging its internal research and development and exclusive licensing to patents related to Cas12, Cas13, Cas14 and Casɸ, Mammoth Biosciences can provide enhanced diagnostics and genome editing for life science research, healthcare, agriculture, biodefense and more. Based in San Francisco, Mammoth Biosciences is co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and Trevor Martin, Janice Chen, and Lucas Harrington. The firm is backed by top institutional investors [emphasis mine] including Decheng, Mayfield, NFX, and 8VC, and leading individual investors including Brook Byers, Tim Cook, and Jeff Huber.

An October 7, 2029 Nobel Prize press release, which unleashed all this interest in Doudna and Charpentier, notes this,

Prize amount: 10 million Swedish kronor, to be shared equally between the Laureates.

In Canadian money that amount is $1,492,115.03 (as of Oct. 9, 2020 12:40 PDT when I checked a currency converter).

Ordinarily there’d be a mildly caustic comment from me about business opportunities and medical research but this is a time for congratulations to both Dr. Emanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna.

Effective treatment for citrus-destroying disease?

Citrus greening is a worldwide problem. A particularly virulent disease that destroys citrus fruit, it’s a problem that is worsening. Before getting to the research from the University of California at Riverside (UCR), here’s more about the disease and how it’s developing from the UCR Huanglongbing, (HLB, Citrus Greening webpage,

The Situation: Citrus huanglongbing (HLB), previously called citrus greening disease, is one of the most destructive diseases of citrus worldwide.  Originally thought to be caused by a virus, it is now known to be caused by unculturable phloem-limited bacteria.  There are three forms of greening that have been described.  The African form produces symptoms only under cool conditions and is transmitted by the African citrus psyllid Trioza erytreae, while the Asian form prefers warmer conditions and is transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid Diaphorina citri.  Recently a third American form transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid was discovered in Brazil.  This American form of the disease apparently originated in China.  In North America, the psyllid vector, Diaphorina citri, of HLB is found in Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Hawaii, and recently arrived in Southern California from Mexico. HLB is known to occur in Florida Lousiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Cuba, Belize and the Eastern Yucatan of Mexico.  A federal quarantine restricts all movement of citrus and other plants in the family Rutaceae from Asian Citrus Psyllid or HLB-infested areas into California in order to prevent introduction of the disease.

 Damage:  The HLB bacteria can infect most citrus cultivars, species and hybrids and even some citrus relatives.  Leaves of newly infected trees develop a blotchy mottle appearance.  On chronically infected trees, the leaves are small and exhibit asymmetrical blotchy mottling (in contrast to Zinc deficiency that causes symmetrical blotching).  Fruit from HLB-infected trees are small, lopsided, poorly colored, and contain aborted seeds. The juice from affected fruit is low in soluble solids, high in acids and abnormally bitter.  The fruit retains its green color at the navel end when mature, which is the reason for the common name “citrus greening disease.”  This fruit is of no value because of poor size and quality.  There is no cure for the disease and rapid tree removal is critical for prevention of spread.

Economic Impact: HLB is one of the most devastating diseases of citrus and since its discovery in Florida in 2005, citrus acreage in that state has declined significantly.  If the disease were to establish in California, the nursery industry would be required to move all of their production under screenhouses, pesticide treatments for the vector would be instituted resulting in greatly increased pesticide costs (3-6 treatments per year) and indirect costs due to pesticide-induced disruption of integrated pest management programs for other citrus pests.  A costly eradication program would need to be instituted to remove infected trees in order to protect the citrus industry.

Distribution of HLB: In April 2012, after about a week of testing, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) removed a pumelo tree with a lemon graft from Hacienda Heights in Los Angeles County after the tree and an Asian citrus psyllid found on the tree both tested positive for Huanglongbing. In 2005, HLB was also found in Florida and it is now known to occur in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Cuba, Belze and Eastern Mexico.  Worldwide, HLB is also present in China, eastern and southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Mauritius, Reunion, the Saudi Arabian peninsula, and southeast Asia.

Research:  Research is focusing on characterization of the bacteria, development of detection methods, and control of the disease and the psyllid.  To date, control of the disease is based on planting HLB-free citrus germplasm, eradication of infected citrus plants, and control of the vector with systemic insecticides.  Countries with HLB learn to manage the disease so that they can still produce citrus.  In California, the best strategy is to keep this disease out. This goal is supported by both federal and state quarantine regulations and the University of California’s Citrus Clonal Protection Program, which provides a mechanism for the safe introduction of citrus germplasm into California.

A July 7, 2020 news item on phys.org announces what researchers hope can be used commercially as a new treatment for citrus greening disease from researchers University of California at Riverside (UCR), Note: Links have been removed,

UC Riverside scientists have found the first substance capable of controlling Citrus Greening Disease, which has devastated citrus farms in Florida and also threatens California.

The new treatment effectively kills the bacterium causing the disease with a naturally occurring molecule found in wild citrus relatives. This molecule, an antimicrobial peptide, offers numerous advantages over the antibiotics currently used to treat the disease.

UCR geneticist Hailing Jin, who discovered the cure after a five-year search, explained that unlike antibiotic sprays, the peptide is stable even when used outdoors in high heat, easy to manufacture, and safe for humans.

A July 7, 2020 UCR news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jules Bernstein, which originated the news item, provides technical detail and information about plans to commercialize the product,

“This peptide is found in the fruit of Australian finger limes, which can naturally tolerate Citrus Greening bacteria and has been consumed for hundreds of years,” Jin said. “It is much safer to use this natural plant product on agricultural crops than other synthetic chemicals.”

Currently, some growers in Florida are spraying antibiotics and pesticides in an attempt to save trees from the CLas bacterium that causes citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing or HLB.

“Most antibiotics are temperature sensitive, so their effects are largely reduced when applied in the hot weather,” Jin said. “By contrast, this peptide is stable even when used in 130-degree heat.”

Jin found the peptide by examining plants such as the Australian finger lime known to possess natural tolerance for the bacteria that causes Citrus Greening Disease, and she isolated the genes that contribute to this innate immunity. One of these genes produces the peptide, which she then tested over the course of two years. Improvement was soon visible.

“You can see the bacteria drastically reduced, and the leaves appear healthy again only a few months after treatment,” Jin said.

Because the peptide only needs to be reapplied a few times per year, it is highly cost effective for growers. This peptide can also be developed into a vaccine to protect young healthy plants from infection, as it is able to induce the plant’s innate immunity to the bacteria.

Jin’s peptide can be applied by injection or foliage spray, and it moves systemically through plants and remains stable, which makes the effect of the treatment stronger.

The treatment will be further enhanced with proprietary injection technology made by Invaio Sciences. UC Riverside has entered into an exclusive, worldwide license agreement with Invaio, ensuring this new treatment goes exactly where it’s needed in plants.

“Invaio is enthusiastic to partner with UC Riverside and advance this innovative technology for combating the disease known as Citrus Greening or Huanglongbing,” said Invaio Chief Science Officer Gerardo Ramos. “The prospect of addressing this previously incurable and devastating crop disease, helping agricultural communities and improving the environmental impact of production is exciting and rewarding,” he said. “This is crop protection in harmony with nature.”

The need for an HLB cure is a global problem, but hits especially close to home as California produces 80 percent of all the fresh citrus in the United States, said Brian Suh, director of technology commercialization in UCR’s Office of Technology Partnerships, which helps bring university technology to market for the benefit of society through licenses, partnerships, and startup companies.

“This license to Invaio opens up the opportunity for a product to get to market faster,” Suh said. “Cutting edge research from UCR, like the peptide identified by Dr. Jin, has a tremendous amount of commercial potential and can transform the trajectory of real-world problems with these innovative solutions.”

You can find out more about Invaio Sciences here.

Citrus greening has been featured here before in an April 7, 2015 posting titled, Citrus canker, Florida, and Zinkicide. There doesn’t seem to have been much progress made with this Florida solution for citrus greening. This 2018 document on nano.gov was the most recent I could find, ZinkicideTM- a systemic nano-ZnO based bactericide/fungicide for crop protection by Swadeshmukul Santra.

New ingredient for computers: water!

A July 25, 2019 news item on Nanowerk provides a description of Moore`s Law and some ‘watery’ research that may upend it,

Moore’s law – which says the number of components that could be etched onto the surface of a silicon wafer would double every two years – has been the subject of recent debate. The quicker pace of computing advancements in the past decade have led some experts to say Moore’s law, the brainchild of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in the 1960s, no longer applies. Particularly of concern, next-generation computing devices require features smaller than 10 nanometers – driving unsustainable increases in fabrication costs.

Biology creates features at sub-10nm scales routinely, but they are often structured in ways that are not useful for applications like computing. A Purdue University group has found ways of transforming structures that occur naturally in cell membranes to create other architectures, like parallel 1nm-wide line segments, more applicable to computing.

Inspired by biological cell membranes, Purdue researchers in the Claridge Research Group have developed surfaces that act as molecular-scale blueprints for unpacking and aligning nanoscale components for next-generation computers. The secret ingredient? Water, in tiny amounts.

A July 25, 2019 Purdue University news release (also on EurekAlert), expands on the theme,

“Biology has an amazing tool kit for embedding chemical information in a surface,” said Shelley Claridge, a recently tenured faculty member in chemistry and biomedical engineering at Purdue, who leads a group of nanomaterials researchers. “What we’re finding is that these instructions can become even more powerful in nonbiological settings, where water is scarce.”

In work just published in Chem, sister journal to Cell, the group has found that stripes of lipids can unpack and order flexible gold nanowires with diameters of just 2 nm, over areas corresponding to many millions of molecules in the template surface.

“The real surprise was the importance of water,” Claridge said. “Your body is mostly water, so the molecules in your cell membranes depend on it to function. Even after we transform the membrane structure in a way that’s very nonbiological and dry it out, these molecules can pull enough water out of dry winter air to do their job.”

Their work aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration, celebrating the global advancements in sustainability as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. Sustainability is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

The research team is working with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization to patent their work. They are looking for partners for continued research and to take the technology to market. [emphasis mine]

I wonder how close they are to taking this work to market. Usually they say it will be five to 10 years but perhaps we’ll see water-based computers in the near future. In the meantime, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

1-nm-Wide Hydrated Dipole Arrays Regulate AuNW Assembly on Striped Monolayers in Nonpolar Solvent by Ashlin G. Porter, Tianhong Ouyang, Tyler R. Hayes, John Biechele-Speziale, Shane R. Russell, Shelley A. Claridge. Chem DOI: DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2019.07.002 Published online:July 25, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

It has also, Bogost notes in his article, occasioned an art show (Note: Links have been removed),

… part of “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” an exhibition of prints recently shown [Februay 13 – March 5, 2019] at the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of New York’s contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer.

The catalog calls the show a “collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal,” a move meant to spotlight, and anthropomorphize, the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it’s the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.

If they hadn’t found each other in the New York art scene, the players involved could have met on a Spike Jonze film set: a computer scientist commanding five-figure print sales from software that generates inkjet-printed images; a former hotel-chain financial analyst turned Chelsea techno-gallerist with apparent ties to fine-arts nobility; a venture capitalist with two doctoral degrees in biomedical informatics; and an art consultant who put the whole thing together, A-Team–style, after a chance encounter at a blockchain conference. Together, they hope to reinvent visual art, or at least to cash in on machine-learning hype along the way.

The show in New York City, “Faceless Portraits …,” exhibited work by an artificially intelligent artist-agent (I’m creating a new term to suit my purposes) that’s different than the one used by Obvious to create “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” As noted earlier, it sold for a lot of money (Note: Links have been removed),

Bystanders in and out of the art world were shocked. The print had never been shown in galleries or exhibitions before coming to market at auction, a channel usually reserved for established work. The winning bid was made anonymously by telephone, raising some eyebrows; art auctions can invite price manipulation. It was created by a computer program that generates new images based on patterns in a body of existing work, whose features the AI “learns.” What’s more, the artists who trained and generated the work, the French collective Obvious, hadn’t even written the algorithm or the training set. They just downloaded them, made some tweaks, and sent the results to market.

“We are the people who decided to do this,” the Obvious member Pierre Fautrel said in response to the criticism, “who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.” A century after Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art [emphasis mine] by putting it in a gallery, not much has changed, with or without computers. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

A bit of a segue here, there is a controversy as to whether or not that ‘urinal art’, also known as, The Fountain, should be attributed to Duchamp as noted in my January 23, 2019 posting titled ‘Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain’.

Getting back to the main action, Bogost goes on to describe the technologies underlying the two different AI artist-agents (Note: Links have been removed),

… Using a computer is hardly enough anymore; today’s machines offer all kinds of ways to generate images that can be output, framed, displayed, and sold—from digital photography to artificial intelligence. Recently, the fashionable choice has become generative adversarial networks, or GANs, the technology that created Portrait of Edmond de Belamy. Like other machine-learning methods, GANs use a sample set—in this case, art, or at least images of it—to deduce patterns, and then they use that knowledge to create new pieces. A typical Renaissance portrait, for example, might be composed as a bust or three-quarter view of a subject. The computer may have no idea what a bust is, but if it sees enough of them, it might learn the pattern and try to replicate it in an image.

GANs use two neural nets (a way of processing information modeled after the human brain) to produce images: a “generator” and a “discerner.” The generator produces new outputs—images, in the case of visual art—and the discerner tests them against the training set to make sure they comply with whatever patterns the computer has gleaned from that data. The quality or usefulness of the results depends largely on having a well-trained system, which is difficult.

That’s why folks in the know were upset by the Edmond de Belamy auction. The image was created by an algorithm the artists didn’t write, trained on an “Old Masters” image set they also didn’t create. The art world is no stranger to trend and bluster driving attention, but the brave new world of AI painting appeared to be just more found art, the machine-learning equivalent of a urinal on a plinth.

Ahmed Elgammal thinks AI art can be much more than that. A Rutgers University professor of computer science, Elgammal runs an art-and-artificial-intelligence lab, where he and his colleagues develop technologies that try to understand and generate new “art” (the scare quotes are Elgammal’s) with AI—not just credible copies of existing work, like GANs do. “That’s not art, that’s just repainting,” Elgammal says of GAN-made images. “It’s what a bad artist would do.”

Elgammal calls his approach a “creative adversarial network,” or CAN. It swaps a GAN’s discerner—the part that ensures similarity—for one that introduces novelty instead. The system amounts to a theory of how art evolves: through small alterations to a known style that produce a new one. That’s a convenient take, given that any machine-learning technique has to base its work on a specific training set.

The results are striking and strange, although calling them a new artistic style might be a stretch. They’re more like credible takes on visual abstraction. The images in the show, which were produced based on training sets of Renaissance portraits and skulls, are more figurative, and fairly disturbing. Their gallery placards name them dukes, earls, queens, and the like, although they depict no actual people—instead, human-like figures, their features smeared and contorted yet still legible as portraiture. Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, for example, depicts a torso that might also read as the front legs and rear haunches of a hound. Atop it, a fleshy orb comes across as a head. The whole scene is rippled by the machine-learning algorithm, in the way of so many computer-generated artworks.

Faceless Portrait of a Merchant, one of the AI portraits produced by Ahmed Elgammal and AICAN. (Artrendex Inc.) [downloaded from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/ai-created-art-invades-chelsea-gallery-scene/584134/]

Bogost consults an expert on portraiture for a discussion about the particularities of portraiture and the shortcomings one might expect of an AI artist-agent (Note: A link has been removed),

“You can’t really pick a form of painting that’s more charged with cultural meaning than portraiture,” John Sharp, an art historian trained in 15th-century Italian painting and the director of the M.F.A. program in design and technology at Parsons School of Design, told me. The portrait isn’t just a style, it’s also a host for symbolism. “For example, men might be shown with an open book to show how they are in dialogue with that material; or a writing implement, to suggest authority; or a weapon, to evince power.” Take Portrait of a Youth Holding an Arrow, an early-16th-century Boltraffio portrait that helped train the AICAN database for the show. The painting depicts a young man, believed to be the Bolognese poet Girolamo Casio, holding an arrow at an angle in his fingers and across his chest. It doubles as both weapon and quill, a potent symbol of poetry and aristocracy alike. Along with the arrow, the laurels in Casio’s hair are emblems of Apollo, the god of both poetry and archery.

A neural net couldn’t infer anything about the particular symbolic trappings of the Renaissance or antiquity—unless it was taught to, and that wouldn’t happen just by showing it lots of portraits. For Sharp and other critics of computer-generated art, the result betrays an unforgivable ignorance about the supposed influence of the source material.

But for the purposes of the show, the appeal to the Renaissance might be mostly a foil, a way to yoke a hip, new technology to traditional painting in order to imbue it with the gravity of history: not only a Chelsea gallery show, but also an homage to the portraiture found at the Met. To reinforce a connection to the cradle of European art, some of the images are presented in elaborate frames, a decision the gallerist, Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim (yes, that Guggenheim; he says the relation is “distant”) [the Guggenheim is strongly associated with the visual arts by way the two Guggeheim museums, one in New York City and the other in Bilbao, Portugal], told me he insisted upon. Meanwhile, the technical method makes its way onto the gallery placards in an official-sounding way—“Creative Adversarial Network print.” But both sets of inspirations, machine-learning and Renaissance portraiture, get limited billing and zero explanation at the show. That was deliberate, Hoerle-Guggenheim said. He’s betting that the simple existence of a visually arresting AI painting will be enough to draw interest—and buyers. It would turn out to be a good bet.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

This is a fascinating article and I have one last excerpt, which poses this question, is an AI artist-agent a collaborator or a medium? There ‘s also speculation about how AI artist-agents might impact the business of art (Note: Links have been removed),

… it’s odd to list AICAN as a collaborator—painters credit pigment as a medium, not as a partner. Even the most committed digital artists don’t present the tools of their own inventions that way; when they do, it’s only after years, or even decades, of ongoing use and refinement.

But Elgammal insists that the move is justified because the machine produces unexpected results. “A camera is a tool—a mechanical device—but it’s not creative,” he said. “Using a tool is an unfair term for AICAN. It’s the first time in history that a tool has had some kind of creativity, that it can surprise you.” Casey Reas, a digital artist who co-designed the popular visual-arts-oriented coding platform Processing, which he uses to create some of his fine art, isn’t convinced. “The artist should claim responsibility over the work rather than to cede that agency to the tool or the system they create,” he told me.

Elgammal’s financial interest in AICAN might explain his insistence on foregrounding its role. Unlike a specialized print-making technique or even the Processing coding environment, AICAN isn’t just a device that Elgammal created. It’s also a commercial enterprise.

Elgammal has already spun off a company, Artrendex, that provides “artificial-intelligence innovations for the art market.” One of them offers provenance authentication for artworks; another can suggest works a viewer or collector might appreciate based on an existing collection; another, a system for cataloging images by visual properties and not just by metadata, has been licensed by the Barnes Foundation to drive its collection-browsing website.

The company’s plans are more ambitious than recommendations and fancy online catalogs. When presenting on a panel about the uses of blockchain for managing art sales and provenance, Elgammal caught the attention of Jessica Davidson, an art consultant who advises artists and galleries in building collections and exhibits. Davidson had been looking for business-development partnerships, and she became intrigued by AICAN as a marketable product. “I was interested in how we can harness it in a compelling way,” she says.

The art market is just that: a market. Some of the most renowned names in art today, from Damien Hirst to Banksy, trade in the trade of art as much as—and perhaps even more than—in the production of images, objects, and aesthetics. No artist today can avoid entering that fray, Elgammal included. “Is he an artist?” Hoerle-Guggenheim asked himself of the computer scientist. “Now that he’s in this context, he must be.” But is that enough? In Sharp’s estimation, “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time” is a tech demo more than a deliberate oeuvre, even compared to the machine-learning-driven work of his design-and-technology M.F.A. students, who self-identify as artists first.

Judged as Banksy or Hirst might be, Elgammal’s most art-worthy work might be the Artrendex start-up itself, not the pigment-print portraits that its technology has output. Elgammal doesn’t treat his commercial venture like a secret, but he also doesn’t surface it as a beneficiary of his supposedly earnest solo gallery show. He’s argued that AI-made images constitute a kind of conceptual art, but conceptualists tend to privilege process over product or to make the process as visible as the product.

Hoerle-Guggenheim worked as a financial analyst[emphasis mine] for Hyatt before getting into the art business via some kind of consulting deal (he responded cryptically when I pressed him for details). …

If you have the time, I recommend reading Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic in its entirety/ these excerpts don’t do it enough justice.

Portraiture: what does it mean these days?

After reading the article I have a few questions. What exactly do Bogost and the arty types in the article mean by the word ‘portrait’? “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is an image of someone who doesn’t and never has existed and the exhibit “Faceless Portraits Transcending Time,” features images that don’t bear much or, in some cases, any resemblance to human beings. Maybe this is considered a dull question by people in the know but I’m an outsider and I found the paradox: portraits of nonexistent people or nonpeople kind of interesting.

BTW, I double-checked my assumption about portraits and found this definition in the Portrait Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person [emphasis mine], in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

So, portraits that aren’t portraits give rise to some philosophical questions but Bogost either didn’t want to jump into that rabbit hole (segue into yet another topic) or, as I hinted earlier, may have assumed his audience had previous experience of those kinds of discussions.

Vancouver (Canada) and a ‘portraiture’ exhibit at the Rennie Museum

By one of life’s coincidences, Vancouver’s Rennie Museum had an exhibit (February 16 – June 15, 2019) that illuminates questions about art collecting and portraiture, From a February 7, 2019 Rennie Museum news release,

‘downloaded from https://renniemuseum.org/press-release-spring-2019-collected-works/] Courtesy: Rennie Museum

February 7, 2019

Press Release | Spring 2019: Collected Works
By rennie museum

rennie museum is pleased to present Spring 2019: Collected Works, a group exhibition encompassing the mediums of photography, painting and film. A portraiture of the collecting spirit [emphasis mine], the works exhibited invite exploration of what collected objects, and both the considered and unintentional ways they are displayed, inform us. Featuring the works of four artists—Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie—the exhibition runs from February 16 to June 15, 2019.

Four exquisite paintings by Scottish painter Andrew Grassie detailing the home and private storage space of a major art collector provide a peek at how the passionately devoted integrates and accommodates the physical embodiments of such commitment into daily life. Grassie’s carefully constructed, hyper-realistic images also pose the question, “What happens to art once it’s sold?” In the transition from pristine gallery setting to idiosyncratic private space, how does the new context infuse our reading of the art and how does the art shift our perception of the individual?

Furthering the inquiry into the symbiotic exchange between possessor and possession, a selection of images by American photographer Louise Lawler depicting art installed in various private and public settings question how the bilateral relationship permeates our interpretation when the collector and the collected are no longer immediately connected. What does de-acquisitioning an object inform us and how does provenance affect our consideration of the art?

The question of legacy became an unexpected facet of 700 Nimes Road (2010-2011), American photographer Catherine Opie’s portrait of legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Opie did not directly photograph Taylor for any of the fifty images in the expansive portfolio. Instead, she focused on Taylor’s home and the objects within, inviting viewers to see—then see beyond—the façade of fame and consider how both treasures and trinkets act as vignettes to the stories of a life. Glamorous images of jewels and trophies juxtapose with mundane shots of a printer and the remote-control user manual. Groupings of major artworks on the wall are as illuminating of the home’s mistress as clusters of personal photos. Taylor passed away part way through Opie’s project. The subsequent photos include Taylor’s mementos heading off to auction, raising the question, “Once the collections that help to define someone are disbursed, will our image of that person lose focus?”

In a similar fashion, the twenty-two photographs in Villa Iolas (1982/2017), by American artist and filmmaker William E. Jones, depict the Athens home of iconic art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas. Taken in 1982 by Jones during his first travels abroad, the photographs of art, furniture and antiquities tell a story of privilege that contrast sharply with the images Jones captures on a return visit in 2016. Nearly three decades after Iolas’s 1989 death, his home sits in dilapidation, looted and vandalized. Iolas played an extraordinary role in the evolution of modern art, building the careers of Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Giorgio de Chirico. He gave Andy Warhol his first solo exhibition and was a key advisor to famed collectors John and Dominique de Menil. Yet in the years since his death, his intention of turning his home into a modern art museum as a gift to Greece, along with his reputation, crumbled into ruins. The photographs taken by Jones during his visits in two different eras are incorporated into the film Fall into Ruin (2017), along with shots of contemporary Athens and antiquities on display at the National Archaeological Museum.

“I ask a lot of questions about how portraiture functionswhat is there to describe the person or time we live in or a certain set of politics…”
 – Catherine Opie, The Guardian, Feb 9, 2016

We tend to think of the act of collecting as a formal activity yet it can happen casually on a daily basis, often in trivial ways. While we readily acknowledge a collector consciously assembling with deliberate thought, we give lesser consideration to the arbitrary accumulations that each of us accrue. Be it master artworks, incidental baubles or random curios, the objects we acquire and surround ourselves with tell stories of who we are.

Andrew Grassie (Scotland, b. 1966) is a painter known for his small scale, hyper-realist works. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Tate Britain; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh; institut supérieur des arts de Toulouse; and rennie museum, Vancouver, Canada. He lives and works in London, England.

William E. Jones (USA, b. 1962) is an artist, experimental film-essayist and writer. Jones’s work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern, London; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Austrian Film Museum, Vienna; and, Oberhausen Short Film Festival. He is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.

Louise Lawler (USA, b. 1947) is a photographer and one of the foremost members of the Pictures Generation. Lawler was the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2017. She has held exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Museum of Art, Oslo; and Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris. She lives and works in New York.

Catherine Opie (USA, b. 1961) is a photographer and educator. Her work has been exhibited at Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio; Henie Onstad Art Center, Oslo; Los the Angeles County Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. She is the recipient of United States Artist Fellowship, Julius Shulman’s Excellence in Photography Award, and the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art Medal.  She lives and works in Los Angeles.

rennie museum opened in October 2009 in historic Wing Sang, the oldest structure in Vancouver’s Chinatown, to feature dynamic exhibitions comprising only of art drawn from rennie collection. Showcasing works by emerging and established international artists, the exhibits, accompanied by supporting catalogues, are open free to the public through engaging guided tours. The museum’s commitment to providing access to arts and culture is also expressed through its education program, which offers free age-appropriate tours and customized workshops to children of all ages.

rennie collection is a globally recognized collection of contemporary art that focuses on works that tackle issues related to identity, social commentary and injustice, appropriation, and the nature of painting, photography, sculpture and film. Currently the collection includes works by over 370 emerging and established artists, with over fifty collected in depth. The Vancouver based collection engages actively with numerous museums globally through a robust, artist-centric, lending policy.

So despite the Wikipedia definition, it seems that portraits don’t always feature people. While Bogost didn’t jump into that particular rabbit hole, he did touch on the business side of art.

What about intellectual property?

Bogost doesn’t explicitly discuss this particular issue. It’s a big topic so I’m touching on it only lightly, if an artist worsk with an AI, the question as to ownership of the artwork could prove thorny. Is the copyright owner the computer scientist or the artist or both? Or does the AI artist-agent itself own the copyright? That last question may not be all that farfetched. Sophia, a social humanoid robot, has occasioned thought about ‘personhood.’ (Note: The robots mentioned in this posting have artificial intelligence.) From the Sophia (robot) Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Sophia has been interviewed in the same manner as a human, striking up conversations with hosts. Some replies have been nonsensical, while others have impressed interviewers such as 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose.[12] In a piece for CNBC, when the interviewer expressed concerns about robot behavior, Sophia joked that he had “been reading too much Elon Musk. And watching too many Hollywood movies”.[27] Musk tweeted that Sophia should watch The Godfather and asked “what’s the worst that could happen?”[28][29] Business Insider’s chief UK editor Jim Edwards interviewed Sophia, and while the answers were “not altogether terrible”, he predicted it was a step towards “conversational artificial intelligence”.[30] At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, a BBC News reporter described talking with Sophia as “a slightly awkward experience”.[31]

On October 11, 2017, Sophia was introduced to the United Nations with a brief conversation with the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed.[32] On October 25, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, the robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship [emphasis mine], becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality.[29][33] This attracted controversy as some commentators wondered if this implied that Sophia could vote or marry, or whether a deliberate system shutdown could be considered murder. Social media users used Sophia’s citizenship to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In December 2017, Sophia’s creator David Hanson said in an interview that Sophia would use her citizenship to advocate for women’s rights in her new country of citizenship; Newsweek criticized that “What [Hanson] means, exactly, is unclear”.[34] On November 27, 2018 Sophia was given a visa by Azerbaijan while attending Global Influencer Day Congress held in Baku. December 15, 2018 Sophia was appointed a Belt and Road Innovative Technology Ambassador by China'[35]

As for an AI artist-agent’s intellectual property rights , I have a July 10, 2017 posting featuring that question in more detail. Whether you read that piece or not, it seems obvious that artists might hesitate to call an AI agent, a partner rather than a medium of expression. After all, a partner (and/or the computer scientist who developed the programme) might expect to share in property rights and profits but paint, marble, plastic, and other media used by artists don’t have those expectations.

Moving slightly off topic , in my July 10, 2017 posting I mentioned a competition (literary and performing arts rather than visual arts) called, ‘Dartmouth College and its Neukom Institute Prizes in Computational Arts’. It was started in 2016 and, as of 2018, was still operational under this name: Creative Turing Tests. Assuming there’ll be contests for prizes in 2019, there’s (from the contest site) [1] PoetiX, competition in computer-generated sonnet writing; [2] Musical Style, composition algorithms in various styles, and human-machine improvisation …; and [3] DigiLit, algorithms able to produce “human-level” short story writing that is indistinguishable from an “average” human effort. You can find the contest site here.