What Canada can learn from Israel’s startup ecosystem

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s first trade mission to the Middle East was an overwhelming success, generating 44 agreements worth more than $180 million.

As president and CEO of Life Sciences Ontario, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing Ontario’s life sciences sector, I had the opportunity to be part of this ground-breaking mission to Israel, along with a group of more than 100 delegates from Ontario companies, universities, and other life sciences organizations.

I came away from the trip with the clear impression that Israel is a powerhouse of life sciences innovation that punches well above its weight. How do they do it? There are several key learnings we can apply to our life sciences and tech sectors:

Commercialization challenges between Israel and Canada are similar

Access to capital is difficult, and the local market is relatively small. As such, Israel has placed an emphasis on external partnerships. This is something we need to continue to improve on. It often seems there’s an inherent bias against travelling abroad to promote ourselves – is it really worth the expense? The answer is yes. Canada has incredible innovations, but we need to get better at telling the world about them. We need to place Canadian successes in the global spotlight. And we need to do this more often.

Assets from Israel’s academic universities have a well-defined sharing structure (similar to that of Bayh-Dole in the US)

40 percent to the primary investigator, 40 percent to the university, and 20 percent to the PI’s research lab. It’s striking that there is no harmonized system in Canada; here, these arrangements are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and differ across universities.

Innovation and entrepreneurship is embedded in Israel’s culture and social fabric.

One speaker told me she spoke to a kindergarten class about startups, and it’s common for young children to say they want to be entrepreneurs when they grow up.

Israel benefits from an Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS)

This person is charged with the execution of government policy for support of industrial R&D. The OCS assists in the development of technology in Israel as a means of fostering economic growth, encouraging technological innovation and entrepreneurship, leveraging Israel’s scientific potential, and encouraging R&D collaboration both nationally and internationally. This model is worth a closer look as our Federal Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, gears up to recruit a Chief Science Officer.

They track success

Almost every presentation during our trip provided examples of innovations that came out of research in Israel. They clearly know their success stories and the economic impact, and they communicate this in a clear and aligned fashion. I believe we can get better at measuring, tracking, and sharing our successes, both with benchmarking initiatives such as our Life Sciences Sector Report, and social media initiatives such as the #OntarioInnovation hashtag.

The silver lining of this incredibly successful mission was a chance to see how Canada can take its innovation game to the next level. I’m proud to have had the opportunity be part of this delegation that represented our companies, province, and country so well.

The question is, can we bring these learnings to bear on our life sciences and tech sectors? The time is now. Canada is once again a leader on the world stage, and we’re being looked at, for perhaps the first time, as trend setters. All eyes are on us: We must seize this opportunity to tell our story to to the world, and bolster these key sectors with policies that will ensure our future economic success.

Photo courtesy Götz Keller

Jason Field

Jason Field

Dr. Jason Field is the President and CEO of Life Sciences Ontario (LSO), the industry voice for the life sciences sector in Ontario. LSO is a member-driven organization that represents and promotes the province’s vibrant and diverse life sciences sector.