Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, it is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today.
We've already done the introductions so I won't repeat them.
For some of you who aren't entirely familiar with Concordia University, I'll take a moment to provide a high-level description of who we are.
Concordia is one of Canada's largest comprehensive universities with over 46,000 students, of whom about 6,500 are graduate students. Our main campus is right in the heart of downtown Montreal, with a second, the Loyola campus, in the NDG neighbourhood just a few kilometres away from the city centre. Our student body is one of the most culturally diverse in Canada, and this diversity is one of our great strengths, because diversity is an active ingredient in innovation.
Concordia is truly a 21st century university. We have a strong tradition of public and community service, but we are also steadfastly turned towards the future, with our researchers who may well be defining the future of humankind.
Through research, teaching, and experiential learning, we provide our students with global skills to meet next-generation challenges. We're also a young university, 40 years old, with the flexibility and nimbleness to foster transdisciplinary convergence and think outside the box. Times Higher Education ranks us as one of the top 100 universities in the world under the age of 50. We're proud of that world-class ranking. We think we're a university on the move.
We thank you for providing us with the opportunity today to express our point of view on the so-called disruptive technologies, using specific examples of what we are doing at Concordia.
As a starting point, let us propose that instead of focusing on the term “disruptive technologies”, which can have some negative connotations, we think about exponential technologies, because the changes we want to tell you about involve new processes and new products with boundless potential and opportunity for public good.
As Dr. Martin and Monsieur Hervé can explain in more detail during questions, these exponential technologies are emerging at a dramatic speed with social and economic impacts almost unimaginable to those of us raised in an earlier generation.
Our research in synthetic biology and our commitment to innovation, represented by District 3, are eloquent examples of the way in which we breathe life into exponential technologies at Concordia.
Let me start with synthetic biology. What is synthetic biology? Put simply, synthetic biology applies engineering principles to biology to build biological systems that can benefit humankind. It takes the biological information encoded in DNA from one system and renders it functional through its transition and manipulation to another system. The World Economic Forum's “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015” identified synthetic biology as one of its five top emerging issues that will shape our future, and the U.K. government has identified it as one of eight great technologies.
Some of you may remember an opinion piece from December 2014 entitled, “Power, promise of synthetic biology: time is now to invent our future”, that appeared in The Hill Times. We have copies. It was co-authored by Dr. Martin; Pierre Meulien, the head of Genome Canada; Marc LePage, the CEO of Génome Québec; Rémi Quirion, the chief scientist of Quebec; and Graham Bell, the president of the Royal Society of Canada. The gist of the article is that synthetic biology has enormous potential for Canada and the world, but we need to move fast to capitalize on our talent and resources to establish our global positioning.
At Concordia, synthetic biology is the natural extension of our expertise in genomic research.
We have benefited enormously from federal, provincial, and industrial funding to support our research in this area. The capacity to sequence human and plant genomes is foundational to the biologically inspired engineering that's happening at our centre for applied synthetic biology, the first facility of its kind in Canada.
Dr. Martin, who's the scientific director of the centre, has been a leading exponent of synthetic biology since its inception, both as a researcher and as an entrepreneur. When he was doing post-doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley before returning to Canada, Dr. Martin co-founded Amyris, which is now the world's leading synthetic biology start-up.
Drawing on his lab-to-market experience, Dr. Martin's research group at Concordia has built important research partnerships with major companies and institutions across Canada and internationally, such as FPInnovations and Lallemand Bio-Ingredients group. Canada's emerging bioeconomy will be one of our most important national investments in the coming years, and synthetic biology is uniquely poised to foster talent development, industrial productivity, and social gain in this important sector
For example, synthetic biology is instrumental to the development of cellulosic biofuels, fuels produced from what would normally be wastage from wood, grasses, or the inedible parts of plants. Breakthrough uses of synthetic biology are not only crucial from an environmental sustainability standpoint, but offer new ways for established Canadian industries in the resource sector and health care to be internationally productive, competitive, and innovative.
For Canada, which is blessed with vast natural resources and an educated and experienced workforce, this area of economic activity is of paramount importance.
The societal and economic impacts of synthetic biology are also felt globally, beyond Canada's borders. For example, in 2013, Dr. Martin was part of an international research group that successfully engineered the synthetic production of artemisinin, a breakthrough, low-cost, anti-malarial drug that has the potential to save hundreds and thousands of lives every year. Synthetic biology is also used to develop new forms of antibiotic medications, as many traditional antibiotics have been rendered ineffective because of resistence.
One of the most exciting things about synthetic biology is its capacity to spur innovation, excite next-generation scientists, and nurture a start-up culture of entrepreneurship that seeds new businesses and inspires established industries from forestry to pharmaceuticals to rethink key elements of their business model.
Let me build on that training and entrepreneurship piece to tell you a little bit about District 3, Concordia's incubator of innovation and entrepreneurship, which is a runaway success for us. An engineer by training, District 3's executive director Xavier-Henri Hervé was also involved in the development and marketing of a major innovative technology when he co-founded Mechtronix, a leading developer of aircraft simulators in Montreal.
District 3 provides a unique space where young inventors and entrepreneurs can reach their full potential in a constantly evolving business ecosystem.
As those who have visited can tell you, District 3 is essentially an open ideation and maker space, a place where young innovators and entrepreneurs can experiment with outside-the-box ideas. They come with tutelage and mentoring from entrepreneurs and residents. The students work on teams with multiple disciplinary formations, skills, and perspectives. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, from mechanical engineering to business and marketing, from math and computer science to computer art and design.
Diversity is an impetus to innovation, so District 3 is open to all of our students, undergraduate and graduate, as well as students from other universities and recent alumni. They don't come to D3 for academic credit. Instead, they come for the opportunity to create and invent a product, either through a mandate from an existing SME or perhaps to form a company of their own. As Monsieur Hervé can explain in more detail during questions, the essence of District 3 is to foster new forms of collaboration that can help drive great ideas closer to market and provide an open sphere for students where there's absolute freedom to create, innovate, and become start-up entrepreneurs.
One of the things District 3 captures is the agility of SMEs and their capacity to be nimble and agile, to see outside the box, to see exponential possibility where others just worry about disruption. Our experience is that students now want more and more to add this experiential profile to their formation at university, but the shift in student demand also coincides with and reflects a larger economic trend in Canada and internationally, where value is increasingly created by smaller, more nimble and agile businesses and industries.
By virtue of the very fact that they are completely shaking up normal ways of working, exponential technologies are certainly providing not only enormous economic possibilities, but also unexpected solutions to social problems.
I cannot stress enough the huge opportunity that the emerging bioeconomy offers to a country like ours, blessed with a fantastic resource sector and a well-educated, highly skilled workforce.
Because of their paradigm-shifting nature, exponential technologies have enormous potential not only for industrial growth and product diversification in the marketplace, but also for the health and well-being of society. Therefore, their efficient development and implementation requires constructive engagement with public health experts, scientists, government regulators, and law enforcement agencies.
These technologies are making business move and change at speeds we have never seen before. Without a well-defined regulatory framework for innovators to work in, we run the risk of missing out on opportunities. With speed and agility comes increased mobility. We all have an interest in keeping the best and brightest minds in Canada, building businesses and industries that create wealth across the value chain for all Canadians.
The good news is that Canada does not lag behind in regulating and legislating disruptive and exponential technologies. On a recent visit to the U.K., Dr. Martin and I learned that many of our research colleagues in the field of synthetic biology are envious of the fact that Canada's regulatory model focuses on regulating processes and not products. This allows for a more unified, coherent regulatory environment for innovators, industry, and government partners.
As a leader in synthetic biology, Concordia has been very proactive in discussions with Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Environment Canada on the Environmental Protection Act, Industry Canada, Canada Border Services Agency, and the RCMP. The exponential pace and scope of change unleashed by innovative new technologies creates the challenge of how to develop a regulatory regime that simultaneously ensures public safety, while reducing the lag time from research to market.
As we move forward with our innovations in synthetic biology and beyond at District 3, we'll continue to engage our industry and government partners to find solutions to emerging public policy challenges.
Thank you for your attention.
and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you now.