Northern exposure

Northern exposure

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford
Photograph by Christopher Wahl

On the eighth floor of the MaRS building on College Street, at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, a group of researchers are doing work so cutting edge, it sounds like science fiction: they’re creating human cells in petri dishes. I visited the lab last year, peered through a microscope and saw a small collection of beating heart cells. It was freaky. Gordon Keller is the world-renowned scientist behind this mind-bending enterprise. He and his team are still years away from reaching their goal: to use stem cells to regenerate muscle and repair damaged tissue in patients who have had heart attacks. But if they can pull it off, imagine the life-saving implications down the road. Patients with a heart condition or kidney disease or other chronic ailment—people who today might die waiting for a transplant—could be cured without surgery, simply by replacing dead or dying cells with healthy ones.

The pharmaceutical giant Bayer is betting on Keller’s vision. Last year, Bayer and Versant Ventures invested $225 million (U.S.) to develop stem cell therapies, and Keller’s program is a major beneficiary. It was one of the biggest investments in biomedical technology ever.

We should probably get used to major multinationals investing in our ingenuity. Toronto is experiencing a boom in tech, medicine, artificial intelligence and other fields where science and commerce meet. And the Liberal government is encouraging that growth. In their latest budget, they committed hundreds of millions of dollars to stem cell research, quantum computing and AI—including support for the Vector Institute, an ambitious new non-profit affiliated with U of T that aims to be a global centre of AI research.

The Trump Dodgers

In a bullish move, Trudeau also promised $117 million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars and researchers”—people just like the Canadian-born Keller, who studied and worked at big American research institutes until he was lured back to Canada by the McEwen Centre.

Trump’s presidency doesn’t bode well for the innovation industries in the States. He’s already announced deep, across-the-board cuts to science and research funding, and he’s planning to restrict the H-1B work visa—the visa granted to some of the world’s most sought-after employees. Even if they could get in, many highly educated members of the global elite would be disinclined to work in the U.S. now.

The upside for Canada is that we will have no trouble attracting all that displaced talent. In fact, I suspect we’re about to experience an influx. The Liberals are speeding up the process for foreign-born tech workers, who used to face months of uncertainty before their visas came through. This June, Canada will begin fast-tracking permits, so highly skilled applicants will be let into the country within weeks of applying.

We’ve documented the early indications of Toronto’s brain gain in “The Trump Dodgers.” Some people in our story are Americans who have chosen to move up here for political reasons. Some are Canadians who are coming home after years away. Their numbers are growing.

On the commuter highway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, there’s a billboard put up by a Canadian startup incubator extolling the virtues of tech jobs in Canada. “GoNorthCanada.ca,” it says simply. It’s a message many Americans are ready to hear.

Correction

May 15, 2017

An earlier version of this story wrongly identified the German company Bayer as American.