UBC president highlights city’s biotechnology center and university researchers

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New UBC president Benoit-Antoine Bacon says BC’s largest university has an exciting future, given the city’s growing reputation as a biotechnology hub and new federal funding for life sciences research at the university .

“It’s the people who make everything happen. Talented and highly sought-after experts who come here from all over the world to work with our outstanding faculty and our outstanding students,” Bacon said. At a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade lunch Tuesday, he explained how prolific academics and venture capitalists have been building a network of startups.

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This week, Ottawa announced a $140 million investment in several projects at Canada’s Immunoengineering and Biomanufacturing Center at UBC, including more than 50 academic, industry, not-for-profit and healthcare partners.

Over the past 20 years, from almost nothing, UBC has created about 250 major new companies, many of them in healthcare, physical sciences and new technologies, Bacon said. He described them as generating thousands of jobs and billions in valuation and sales.

As some examples, he highlighted high-profile researchers such as biochemistry and molecular biology professor Pieter Cullis, co-founder of several companies, including Acuitas Therapeutics, which helped develop the lipid nanoparticle delivery system used in COVID-19 vaccines.

“Pieter completed his BSc, MSc and PhD in physics, all at UBC, and is a serial entrepreneur. He has one of the strongest track records in commercializing research discoveries of any researcher in North America.”

He spoke of Megan Levings, a professor in the department of surgery in the school of biomedical and scientific engineering at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, who “is developing cell therapies that activate our body’s own immune system to fight a number of diseases such as such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.”

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Bacon also described massive microscopes nearly four meters high and imposing machines used by Sriram Subramanium to view the smallest molecules and produce the world’s first images related to COVID-19.

Bacon is the school’s 17th president and came with a track record as a senior administrative leader at major Canadian research universities.

He was president and vice-chancellor of Carleton University in Ottawa from 2018 to 2023. He previously served as provost and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University and vice-president of Concordia University in his hometown of Montreal. He has a PhD in neuropsychology from the University of Montreal and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

The university aims to have 50,000 people living on campus by 2050, a figure that is currently around 30,000, Bacon said. He noted, as past UBC presidents have, that the key to increasing affordable housing and fostering economic partnerships on campus is connecting transportation systems.

“I’m new here and I have to be careful what I say and how I say thank you. But I don’t understand why the SkyTrain isn’t here already,” she stated. “We need to all work together to bring the SkyTrain to UBC as quickly as possible.”

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