Genome Canada scores with $160 million in year-end money to establish national research program

Guest Contributor
March 17, 2000

The federal government has given the go-ahead to Genome Canada with $160 million in funding in an attempt to propel Canada back into the rapidly evolving sector, three years after Ottawa's ill-fated 1997 decision to curtail support for the Canadian Genome Analysis and Technology (CGAT) program. The Budget announcement caps a successful drive by Genome Canada to secure adequate funding for its ambitious proposal to allow Canada to participate in the so-called post-genomics era with a series of large-scale projects, positioned to attract additional financing from the provinces and the interest of international consortia (R$, December 8/99).

The funding will support the establishment of five genome centres in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, the Prairies and Atlantic Canada. In addition to financing in-house research capability, the centres will provide the results of that research as well as laboratory services to university, government and industry researchers for all sectors in which genomics plays a role: medicine, forestry, agriculture, aquaculture and the environment.

The government's decision to fund Genome Canada is all the more remarkable considering the esoteric nature of the proposal and its focus on targeted basic research. Its backers convincingly argued that the economic and social impact of genomics was on the verge of exploding, with the near completion of the Human Genome Project, in which Canada was only a peripheral player. Another contributing factor is the decision of several provincial governments and the MRC to fund genomics initiatives prior to a federal commitment. Turning down Genome Canada would have placed the federal government in the uncomfortable position of stalling a national initiative that had clearly convinced other players of its viability. Those other commitments also resulted in the Liberal administration agreeing to a higher level of funding than it originally offered.

Including the federal contribution of year-end money, the total committed to Genome Canada stands at $310-320 million, with the details on provincial funding levels expected over the next few weeks. The not-for-profit, arm's length agency marks the first time a nation within the G-7 has launched a coordinated and integrated national genome strategy.

For Dr Martin Godbout, Genome Canada's interim executive director, the agreement with the federal government successfully concludes eight months of intensive discussions and lobbying. He says he approached his mandate to secure funding for the initiative in much the same way as he would when negotiating a complex venture capital financing.

"I achieved what I was paid for, which was to raise funding, so I'm very satisfied," he says. "I wrote the business plan and then went looking for money, meeting with the federal government, the provincial ministries and others. I don't know too many venture capitalists who have raised $160 million for biotechnology."


The funding success also represents the initiation of an industrial strategy in which research and science are the main drivers. He anticipates the creation of three or four major projects with a high potential for industrial involvement, with the prospect of several spin-off companies and the participation of multinationals as the projects start to generate results

The announcement to fund five genome centres across Canada comes nearly three year after the creation of a genome task force to develop a multidisciplinary concept and funding strategy that eventually became known as Genome Canada. Godbout was among the original group that launched the task force - funded by the Medical Research Council - along with Dr Lap Tsui Choi, Dr Tom Hudson, Dr Bartha Maria Knoppers and three others no longer affiliated with the organization.

The funding falls short of what Genome Canada was originally requesting from the federal government. But Godbout says the decision provide the money in one lump-sum payment - combined with the reduction in the number of the centres from six to five - means the scope and intensity of the original proposal is still intact. By investing the $160 million, he anticipates that that the $210 million required to establish five centres will be realized, particularly given the relatively small amount of capital needed in the first year.

As for subsequent funding, Godbout says he will be looking to the federal government, the provinces, industry and consortia to maintain the organization. "The government believes in the business plan we put on the table. It's up to us to demonstrate that we can succeed and then we will go back to government for more money," he says. "We also expect international consortia to look at Canada as a major player in the game."

Godbout has already visited several European research centres, including the Sanger Centre. Located at Cambridge Univ and sponsored by the Welcome Trust, it is one of the major centres for the Human Genome Project. Dr Gilbert Normand, secretary of state for research, science and technology, accompanied Godbout on the site visit and confirmed that negotiations to collaborate with Genome Canada are underway.

While the provinces determine what levels of support they will be providing to Genome Canada, most activity surrounds the more immediate tasks of fleshing out the board of directors, naming a permanent executive director and launching a competition to select the regional centres. Godbout says he will likely apply for the executive director's position, although he wants the job filled through a competitive process later this spring. He will remain on the board to complete his one-year term regardless of the outcome of the competition.

The regional centres will also be selected through a competition process, and although Godbout says Genome Canada does not explicitly require funding from other levels of government, their financial support could play a role in determining the ultimate winners.

"This is not a matching fund but if the provinces are inclined to promote genome in their regions, money talks," he says. "We want it to be flexible and don't want to have a rigid formula like the 40/60 funding rules of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. We will also meet with the Networks of Centres of Excellence to ensure there is no duplication, although there will be some with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. We will coordinate a national strategy."


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