Navigating the journey from ideation to commercialization of a new technology is a theme we hear daily in conversations with companies, policymakers, researchers, and government agencies. While it sounds like a linear process, it is more like a complex flowchart with many dead-ends and hard re-sets. It can be a long journey that requires patient investment, bold decisions, and perseverance. International players are interested in the Canadian innovation ecosystem, not just for the variety of agencies that support small and medium-sized enterprises but for the bold, risk-taking investments in technologies that will benefit Canadians in the future. That same outside-the-box thinking is shared by many of our successful Canadian entrepreneurs. As Pieter Cullis, an eminent Canadian biochemist and entrepreneur who has contributed to the development of mRNA vaccines, said, “There is no time like the present to try to achieve impossible dreams.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, producing an effective COVID-19 vaccine may have felt like one of those impossible dreams. But many companies took on the challenge of scaling up and commercializing the lipid nanoparticle technology developed by Pieter Cullis and others. This was key to the delivery of the vaccine, and the impact on the health of Canadians was priceless. The pandemic also highlighted a gap in the Canadian ecosystem; the inability to manufacture vaccines. It underlined the need for Canada to rebuild its biomanufacturing capability, including the critical step of scaling up materials production for clinical trials before any large-scale manufacturing of drugs or vaccines could ever be entertained.
It is encouraging to see the Canadian government addressing this gap by building biomanufacturing capacity across the country. Its contribution to many initiatives include funding Vancouver company Precision NanoSystems to build a biomanufacturing center that supports developing and manufacturing next-generation medicines and vaccines. The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) in Saskatchewan was given support for vaccine development and biomanufacturing capabilities, and Medicago in Quebec was given support for clinical trials of plant-based vaccines. Also announced was the creation of the National Research Council’s Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Montreal, an end-to-end biomanufacturing facility. In trusting these capacity-building efforts with different players within the ecosystem, there is a better chance to have facilities that support a variety of stakeholder communities and technology readiness levels.
The pandemic also forced some materials companies to pivot and focus on health-related applications, like personal protective equipment. A couple come to mind among the many companies that were agile enough to do so because they had already taken the leap to large-volume scale-up and commercialization. More than a decade ago, CelluForce established the world’s largest Cellulose NanoCrystals (CNC) plant, capable of producing 300 tonnes per year of high-quality and dispersible form of CNC. Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer found in plant cells, including wood. It can be transformed into cellulose nanofibers or nanocrystals that are biocompatible and provide the strength of Kevlar or steel when added as a composite. CelluForce moved quickly past the pilot plant stage, building on deep materials expertise and the support of shareholders like Domtar, FP Innovations, Schlumberger, Suzano, and Investissement Québec. That bold move caught the attention of the nanocellulose competition worldwide. At the outset of the pandemic, the supply of imported, oil-derived gelling agents used to thicken hand sanitizers for easy application was disrupted, and Canadian advanced materials companies rose to the challenge. CelluForce worked with Canadian producers of hydroalcoholic gels to develop and test CNC as an alternative gelling agent. The fact that Celluforce had already mastered scale-up and manufacturing allowed them to tweak their plant’s process and provide their CNC into their clients’ hand sanitizers and disinfectants with a swift turnaround time.
Another example is NanoXplore, a successful graphene company established in 2011 and headquartered in Montreal. Just like cellulose, carbon is an abundant resource. Graphene, discovered in 2004, is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged on a hexagonal or six-sided lattice. Graphene’s structure gives it unique properties in terms of strength and ability to conduct heat and electricity. Using its patented process, NanoXplore has produced graphene at low cost and in large volumes, 4,000 metric tonnes of graphene powder per year, in an automated facility that is believed to be the largest in the world. NanoXplore uses graphene as an addition to other materials to enhance their properties, similar to CelluForce’s approach. The impact on Canadians is felt by providing greener alternatives to carbon-based materials for improved energy storage, lighter-weight materials, and faster-charging speeds for electric vehicles.
In all the examples above, Canadian companies have leveraged expertise at the research bench for materials formulation, have launched start-ups, developed niche applications, and integrated engineering processes for scale-up and commercialization of products. The rapid pilot to large-scale manufacturing strategy was a bold move that provided an international competitive advantage regarding the security of materials supply.
The pandemic years have shown us that technology solutions emerge from collaborative networks, cross-disciplinary ventures, and communities working towards a common purpose with hope and bold dreams. Let’s continue to scale up the collaborative approach for the future!