Canadians are polite, but we’re still recruiting your biotech talent, America
Canada made headlines during U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for its efforts to lure STEM workers north. Trump is gone now, but Canada hasn’t stopped trying to recruit talent from its neighbor — and one of the hottest fronts in this talent war is biotech.
For generations of Canadian engineers, coders and researchers, Silicon Valley’s better salaries and weather were a siren call. But four years of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, policy and visa restrictions gave Canadian tech companies and governments a competitive advantage.
After Trump took office in 2016, Canada’s federal government boosted the tech ecosystems of cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver by creating a program to fast-track immigration. Canadian tech leaders climbed aboard with campaigns to tempt more workers north. In Quebec, the industry even persuaded Quebec’s notoriously immigration-shy provincial government to accept as many as 14% more newcomers.
The pandemic-driven exodus from Silicon Valley has sent large numbers of Canadian expatriates flocking home. The number of Canadians applying for the U.S. H-1B program has fallen dramatically, accelerating a decade-long trend.
Still, Canadian tech and political leaders remain concerned about the inbound flow of talent to key sectors like advanced manufacturing, clean tech and biotechnology. They’re pressing every button they can to chip away at long-held American advantages.
Much of the action is in biotech. COVID-19 has exposed Canada’s lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity, but the country has a vibrant biotech and life-sciences research sector, driven by an excellent university ecosystem and several thousand startup ventures doing cutting-edge research. Many of these firms have cashed in on the pandemic biotech investment boom, racking in a record amount of venture capital in 2020.
But while this influx has changed the funding landscape, many Canadian companies are still trying to reach scale. The Canadian tech ecosystem is full of talent but it hasn’t traditionally developed, recruited and retained enough of the senior people these firms need to develop into global powerhouses.
They don’t just need scientists — they need business leaders. A recent survey of Toronto-area hubs and ventures revealed that biomedical engineering, regenerative medicine and related firms are suffering significant shortages of senior executives, top managers and scientific specialists, who gravitate toward the better pay and opportunities of the U.S. industries.
At a recent summit of Canada’s Innovation Economy Council (IEC), which both our organizations belong to, industry leaders spoke of unfilled jobs in global regulatory affairs and business development, even chief medical officers. These are hybrid roles that require the kind of technical and business acumen forged from both academic training and progressive leadership roles in the workplace.
Canadian universities, hubs and venture-capital firms are reacting to this need by building specialized training institutes and programs. And scaling Canadian companies are trying to fill the gaps by using newly raised cash to recruit heavily in the U.S. and beyond, offering remote work and flexible work hours while striking partnerships and investigating untapped talent pools.
Against this backdrop, Canada’s federal government just delivered its first full budget in two years. It’s one of the most activist tech-spending plans the country has ever rolled out, showing how seriously the federal government is about building out advanced industries and creating STEM jobs at a time when global markets are moving away from the country’s traditional energy exports, natural resources and manufactured goods. The budget includes college research partnerships, hiring subsidies, grants, and support for incubators and hubs. Critically, there is also a $2.2 billion commitment for building a life-sciences talent pipeline.
Canadians have been broadly supportive of government spending to beat back COVID-19 and hasten the transition to a new economy. An IEC/Campaign Research poll conducted in early April found 3:1 public support for investments in postsecondary STEM education and similarly strong support for government investment in advanced manufacturing, including biotech. That’s just what it takes to compete with a neighbor 10 times your size.
It’s fair to say that Canada won’t drain the U.S. of all its research scientists and Big Pharma CEOs anytime soon. But with an influx of investment capital, a burgeoning tech ecosystem and a concerted policy effort to build, recruit and retain a self-sustaining talent ecosystem, it’s flying under the radar as a place the industry increasingly wants to be.