Wendy Hurlbut
Credit: Science in the City

The executive shares her vision for the industry

This article was originally published in our March issue, before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada. 

1. What is the role of LifeSciences BC?

We are a member-driven organization, and we represent the life sciences ecosystem. We are uniquely positioned in that we bring together academia, research and life sciences industry players, as well as those that support the industry from a growth and administrative perspective.

The industry is digital health, bio-informatics, medtech, medical devices and diagnostics, biotech and the more-established global pharma. Supporting the industry are law firms, privacy professionals, accounting firms and lab supply companies. Our overall vision is to create a world-class life sciences ecosystem in British Columbia and, to a certain degree, broadly in Canada.

2. How important are life sciences to the provincial economy?

We have a long track record of a strong ecosystem in B.C. It always starts with the science. We have amazing academic institutions that produce a lot of science that can be commercialized, and from there we grow the companies. We’ve got AbCellera, which originated out of UBC way back, and they’re the fastest-growing company around right now. We’ve got Stemcell [Technologies], which is a huge success story; Zymeworks, which is on an amazing run; and Aurinia [Pharmaceuticals], which has reported some results related to lupus nephritis that are very positive coming out of clinical trials, and just raised US$191 million. So we’ve got a lot of great momentum.

At LifeSciences BC, we do a number of activities that are about enabling growth. And we talk about five important drivers for the ecosystem: access to capital, access to talent, good science and access to data, access to markets and, increasingly, gaps in infrastructure. For example, wet lab space [where potentially hazardous materials can be used safely] is a crunch point.

3. For the B.C. sector, what are the biggest challenges?

Our Investor Summit in November was the largest it’s ever been. We had over 200 people in attendance, and we had global investors, whether they be VCs or business development leaders from global pharma, which was fantastic because it gave an opportunity for companies to present to a more international audience. Because we just don’t have the flow of capital that we need within the province right now, so very often our companies eventually have to go outside of Canada. We’re hoping to bring industry leaders together [in 2020] to talk about some of these levers we need to try to implement within B.C. to attract more capital.

Another challenge is access to talent. We produce amazing scientists in our province, but we are, as in many sectors, continually struggling with access to the talent that will help drive and grow the businesses. Brilliant businesspeople don’t necessarily know the science very well, and brilliant scientists don’t necessarily have the skills to grow companies. And so it’s about creating that matching, and attracting business leaders to Vancouver to scale the companies, and keep the companies in Canada so we can cycle the talent.

4. How can local, national and international partnerships help grow the industry?

Partnerships are incredibly important. Using a broad definition of partnership, it’s also around the business development deals that many of our local companies have in B.C. and outside, in Canada and internationally. A number of global pharma companies have made significant investments in businesses that are based in B.C. because they see them as investing in the science that these companies are developing and growing.

The other area where partnerships get to be increasingly important is licensing deals. So local companies can license out some of the products and science to third parties that can help create a revenue stream. Also, again, it helps them scale.

5. Where is the B.C. life sciences sector headed? What are you most excited about?

Some leaders are scaling and growing their second or third company, which is fantastic because you get all that learning, and it’s also about recycling of talent. We have some amazing assets: our academic institutions, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, Genome BC, Clinical Trials BC and the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences. So with all of the science and some very successful business leaders, there is so much we can do.

The other interesting thing is that you see great strength in the medtech and digital health space. Increasingly, I see an overlap from our strong gaming industry and the skills that have helped to propel that sector moving into the digital health space.

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Various roles with Johnson & Johnson companies, including worldwide CFO, Animas Corp.; and CFO and director of finance, compliance and business operations, LifeScan Canada
HOBBY: I’m very interested in a healthy lifestyle. I do a lot of hiking, I kayak in the summer, I ski in the winter
■ LAST BOOK I READ: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
FAVOURITE TV SHOW: Grey's Anatomy, in particular the science and how they make it real-life