Breaking down silos at Bioconnect

By William Raillant-Clark

The inaugural McGill inter-disciplinary biotechnology graduate symposium, otherwise known as Bioconnect, had a lofty slogan: Biotechnology towards sustainable innovation. And by all indications, the student organized event held on Nov. 24 lived up to its billing.

“It’s very encouraging for me to see this,” said Dr. Rima Rozen, McGill’s Vice Principal (interim) for Research and International Relations. “The older generation at McGill has been very successful, but relatively few have been involved with industry. This student organized event tells me that the younger generation is ready to turn their discoveries into innovative services and products, that this very young group of academics is keen to work with industry.”

Bioconnect was in fact all about breaking down the barriers between researchers, civil society, business and government. This was reflected in the event’s impressive line up of speakers, representing organizations such as Ogilvy Renault, AstraZeneca, Adnexus and McGill’s Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies, but also within the presentations themselves. Dr. Eliane Ubalijoro, Adjunct Professor of Practice for Public-Private Sector Partnerships, for example, captivated the audience with her presentation on the development of biorefinery clusters in Africa.

The development of biorefinery could “decrease dependency on imported food, increase small farmer incomes from profits, and improve access to markets and training of the stakeholders – the established community groups, managers, scientists, intellectual property experts and regulatory and governmental officials involved,” Ubalijoro said. She believes that the challenge is to engage local communities and policy-makers to build the system that will enable the development of “bioeconomics” in Africa in a way that is sustainable and protects biodiversity. After detailing her experiences in the field, Ubalijoro concluded that “you have to be able to translate, to speak to government, business and society.”

Back in Canada, her diverse audience was taking it all in, and for a half-hour at least, the African experience didn’t seem so far from our own.

Bioconnect is hoping to become an annual event, one that will offer many opportunities to further explore questions such as these. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to come back in 10 years and be able to say that we started this,”

said Sarah Leckey, a science student who was involved in Bioconnect’s communications and marketing committee. This year’s committee has set a very high standard to follow, but Leckey – and every other student involved between now and then – have every reason to believe they will be standing very proud in 2020.