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How the Global Talent Stream Can Improve Vancouver’s Biotechnology Sector

By June 22, 2017No Comments

With Canada’s fast-growing tech sector facing a shortage of 220,000 workers by 2020, the federal government is right to expedite the immigration process for highly skilled workers with its new Global Talent Stream, launched June 12.

As one of the CEOs from across the country who called on Ottawa to streamline the immigration process so that Canadian high-growth companies could quickly access talent in addition to that available within our borders, this faster process is a welcomed change. On average, it has taken between 10 and 12 months for qualified, highly skilled talent to receive work permits in Canada. As part of the Global Skills Strategy, the expedited talent stream cuts that time down to a two-week turnaround.

This new process is a game-changer for growing, high-growth innovation firms like STEMCELL Technologies, the Vancouver-based biotech company that I founded 24 years ago out of my research program at the Terry Fox Lab in the B.C. Cancer Research Centre. With average annual growth at 20 per cent, and in anticipation of hiring 4,000 highly skilled people in the sciences and other professions over the next 10 years, we are hungry to access the international talent that is going to help STEMCELL scale-up globally.

The Global Talent Stream targets two types of talent that high-growth companies are in search of: highly skilled and unique.  Highly skilled workers, such as senior scientists, managers in advanced manufacturing, quality-control experts, product developers, software engineers, digital architects and other field experts, all help firms achieve targets, grow and respond to market demand. Unique workers include those with a skill set unmatched by industry standards — CEOs, CTOs, COOs — who can help a company grow because of their unique, sectorial experience.

One of the biggest recruitment challenges for STEMCELL is attracting world-class scientific minds with niche training to move from traditional academic jobs into careers in biotechnology. We are specifically looking for PhD scientists, highly trained in the fields of cell biology, tissue engineering and immunology, to develop new technologies for regenerative medicine and cell-therapy research — fields that STEMCELL currently supports with over 2,000 products. Importantly, STEMCELL is a growth company focused on global expansion with 96 per cent of its sales outside of Canada. Therefore, we are also dependent on people with expertise in fields such as law, finance and regulatory affairs — where we compete on a global scale to attract talent.

Because the cost of living is a significant factor in recruiting talented people for high-demand occupations, we need to remove additional barriers created by laborious and time-consuming immigration procedures. Provincial governments should also review their immigration processes to make sure their Provincial Nominee programs are helping to grow the emerging sectors of their province.

In the innovation economy, companies can easily be uprooted and moved if access to talent, capital and customers is limited or blocked by unhelpful policies. Innovation firms in the tech sector create value from the products and services they commercialize from ideas. Those ideas are generated by creative skilled workers — it all starts with key talent.

Today’s tech companies can exist virtually anywhere, but it’s their highly skilled talent who can create growth by attracting risk capital and customers. It’s essential we have access to, and to be attractive to, world-class expertise.

Governments need to find ways to make it attractive to grow a 21st-century, knowledge- and innovation-based company in Canada, and these recent changes to the immigration system are a good start. Being able to quickly attract the best and brightest minds to Canada — above and beyond the ones that already live here — is one way the federal government has listened to the needs of CEOs who are choosing to grow their companies in Canada.

Governments should also develop strategies that keep our valuable talent in our country. Canada has long had a highly skilled and educated workforce, but our proximity to the U.S. has created a ‘brain drain,’ which shrinks our talent pool and makes it hard to compete with large firms. Strategies that incentivize our highly trained domestic talent to remain in Canada are an essential next step.

For Canada to fully become an innovation nation, pragmatic policies like the Global Talent Stream are needed so our best, high-growth companies can continue to drive innovation, create more good jobs and generate wealth within our borders.

Dr. Allen Eaves is founder and CEO of STEMCELL Technologies, Canada’s largest biotech, and a member of the Canadian Council of Innovators.