Canada’s pandemic response shows life sciences leadership

Ian G. McKay, CEO, Invest in Canada

Woman in Lab

As a Canadian, I am proud of how Canada has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. #CanadaResilient.

In Canada, we have focused on protection and preparation—by protecting everyone’s health and safety and preparing businesses here for transition to economic recovery. 

Although far from perfect, Canada has fared better in dealing with this pandemic than others around the world. As The Washington Post noted in mid-July, while Canada and the United States both confirmed their first cases around the same time in January, Canada has reported, on a per capita basis, about three times fewer infections than the United States and almost half the number of deaths

Canada’s relative success in responding to COVID-19 speaks to a culture of respect for the life sciences, for professional medical advice, and for each other. As pointed out in that Washington Post article, “The Canadian people have been less divided and more disciplined” over measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Canada’s life sciences sector shines 

As dark clouds go, the COVID-19 pandemic is among the worst to hit our modern world. But we can choose to see a silver lining. For Canada, one such bright spot is that the pandemic is shining a light on the success of Canada’s innovation economy.  

The life sciences sector in Canada is at the centre of this burgeoning innovation economy—a position of prominence that has become more apparent in this pandemic, and in Canada’s response to it. 

SIF reflects Canadian leadership 

An example of the role of life sciences in the innovation economy? On April 23, 2020, Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) brought forward initiatives advancing Canada’s countermeasures in the fight against COVID-19. Specifically, SIF was expanded to funding in support of clinical trials for COVID-19 related vaccines and therapies.  

A noteworthy applicant and recipient has been AbCellera, a Vancouver-based company that will receive up to $175.6 million in funding for a two-phase project. The first phase focuses on the company’s world-leading antibody discovery program, followed by the second-phase building of a facility, the first in Canada, that can go from a patient sample to manufacturing antibodies for clinical testing. 


At Invest in Canada, we share the Strategic Innovation Fund’s goal of “making sure that Canada is a top destination for businesses to invest, grow and create jobs and prosperity.” We took note early on of the many companies in Canada—both domestic and global—showing tremendous innovation in the face of COVID-19. Among the many #CanadaResilient stories we shared through our social media channels were the following: 

  • Thornhill Medical, based in Toronto, has been producing and delivering increased numbers of revolutionary portable ventilator systems. 
  • Medicago, a Quebec City-based vaccine company, has successfully created a candidate for a coronavirus vaccine using their innovative plant-based technology. In mid-July, The Globe & Mail reported that Medicago was spearheading the first Canadian clinical trial of any COVID-19 vaccine
  • Roche, a multinational healthcare company in Laval, Quebec, created an antibody test to help determine if a patient has been exposed to COVID-19 and if the patient has developed antibodies. The antibody test has the largest clinical studies program, with more than 10,000 samples tested. With the test now available to laboratories, healthcare professionals and patients in Canada, Roche’s test is recognized as a significant contribution to Canada’s testing capability and is aiding in the country’s economic recovery. 
  • Hexoskin, a Montreal-based smart shirts company, has developed a high-tech shirt that monitors COVID-19 patients’ vital signs from home. By installing patient-monitoring systems in hospitals and setting up telehealth teams of its own, Hexoskin supports hospitals by freeing up space and reducing the burden on staff. 
  • Sona Nanotech Inc., a Halifax-based medical device company, is creating a ground-breaking antigen test to detect the presence of COVID-19, rather than detecting antibodies after infection. This innovative rapid-response detection test is designed to be used at point-of-care and deliver results in just 10-15 minutes. The company is currently validating the test results to ensure quality and accuracy. 

What drives innovation in Canada? 

Innovation success stories like these show the attractiveness of Canada’s life sciences sector to global investors. Driving this innovation is chiefly Canada’s talent—which encompasses several dimensions that help fuel the tremendous innovation ecosystem in this country. 

Canada is home to the highest educated workforce in the world, with an education system that continues to make investments in critical life sciences research through institutions of higher learning. In fact, Canada outpaces all other G7 countries on R&D investments in the higher education sector. This commitment to innovation includes Canada’s 2018 R&D investments, reflecting the biggest investment in science and university research in Canadian history

To meet the demands of companies and investors seeking specific talent they can’t easily access in Canada, there’s the Global Skills Strategy, which can bring these highly skilled people to Canada within two weeks. 

And, there’s Canada’s record number of international students—over 642,000 in 2019. With 96% of international students saying they would recommend Canada as a study destination, more graduates are choosing to stay: 60% of international students plan to apply for permanent residence in Canada.   

A few facts beyond talent  

In addition to talent, why do so many global investors choose to invest in Canada’s life sciences sector? Consider the following: 

The world’s ten largest biopharmaceutical companies are in Canada, most with R&D and manufacturing operations, and all perform clinical trials here. Canada is also the world’s 10th largest pharmaceuticals market, with annual pharmaceutical manufacturing production valued at $10 billion and annual pharmaceutical sales of over $27 billion

According to Pitchbook, which specializes in financial data, Canada is home to the world’s 2nd largest number of biotechnology companies. 

The Quebec-Ontario Life Sciences Corridor, the second-largest life sciences cluster in North America, is also one of the largest bio-clusters in the world, with more than 1,100 companies, 66,000 qualified workers, and 490 undergraduate and graduate programs in biological and bio-medicine sciences.  

Canada puts a great deal of investment into life sciences R&D—including universities, non-governmental associations, institutes and incubators all throughout the country. In Toronto’s Discovery District alone, over $1 billion is invested annually in public and private medical research.   

And one more key fact: Canada is the lowest-cost G7 country in biotechnology, product testing and clinical trials industries. 

A life sciences sector that will continue to grow 

Canada’s success at building a vibrant life sciences sector is grounded in its national character and an ethos of caring. Choosing to have universal healthcare for all citizens is part of this Canadian way. 

Canada’s approach to life, to business, to prosperity is about welcoming others from around the world to come here, to bring their skills, their innovative ways. Canada’s Global Skills Strategy, as mentioned, has helped companies in the life sciences find the best talent, and it will continue to do so. 

With programs and incentives that attract life sciences investment, more growth will occur. For example, in addition to the Strategic Innovation Fund, there’s the long-running Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentive program, tailor-made for many life sciences activities. 

The closer you look at Canada, the clearer the strength of this country’s life sciences sector becomes. Certainly during these times of COVID-19, but also in the months and years and decades to come. 

Interested in what Canada can offer you, a global investor? Visit and learn more. Then reach out to an Invest in Canada advisor for assistance in establishing or expanding your global business in Canada.