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New Genome Canada President and CEO Eyes More Industry Funding, New Strategic Plan

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The new president and CEO of Genome Canada told GenomeWeb Daily News this week that he will work to double the organization's share of funds from private industry, as well as launch a new strategic planning effort for the coming decade.

"Industry funding is already part of our portfolio," Pierre Meulien, who took the helm of Canada's leading genomics funding organization on Monday, said in an interview. "Today the funding that comes from industry is just under 10 percent, and I would like to see that being doubled over the course of the next few years. That's going to be an exciting part of our strategy, to get industry even more involved."

Traditionally, he said, Genome Canada has attracted funding from businesses on a project-by-project basis.

"I think we'd like to take over the next few years a more proactive approach of bringing stakeholder groups together, and talking to industry across all sectors, to understand their needs a little bit more, and hopefully increase the percentage of funding coming from industry," Meulien said.

That effort will be a component of what he said would be an early priority at the Genome Canada helm. "One of my first jobs is going to be to get a grip on the next strategic plan for Genome Canada. We're starting our next 10-year cycle. It's a very exciting time, where genomics is poised to deliver on so many different fronts, and I'm going start with a very solid strategic plan," he said.

Part of that process, said Meulien, will include reviewing how Genome Canada spends its research dollars, and what, if any, changes should be made in that spending. Under its current annual budget of C$75 million ($73 million), Genome Canada allocates C$30 million for targeted forestry and environmental research, and another C$30 million for strategic areas that include agriculture, fisheries, and human health. All five areas are deemed important to Canada's future economic growth.

For now, "We're not going to stray from those areas. We're really going to focus on those," Meulien said – though the organization has begun reaching out to "thought leaders and opinion leaders, both Canadian and international," to consider what the mix of research should be for the next cycle. "We're actually in the middle of that process as we speak," he said.

"The field is moving so quickly that we have to balance remaining at the cutting edge with the application and translation of the technologies. That's a real challenge in a field where the technologies are not stabilized at all," such as the rapid deployment of next-gen sequencing, Meulien said.

He said another longtime challenge, securing the government funding it needs, should prove less onerous in the coming year compared with recent years, as Canada and the world emerge from recession.

"We're going into the next budget cycle, and we're pretty confident that the funding is going to be smooth," Meulien said, adding that it was too soon to talk about how much federal funding Genome Canada will receive next year.

Canadian federal officials have blamed the recession for their decision to eliminate funding for Genome Canada in the nation's 2009 budget, then restoring spending in this year's budget to C$75 million, just over half of the C$140 million budgeted for the organization back in 2008.

Created in 2000 by Canada's federal government, Genome Canada has won a cumulative C$910 million during its existence, with that total matched by the nation's six provincial genome centers, which manage projects in their regions. Meulien said that the 50-50, federal-provincial funding model is a strength of Genome Canada, despite the budget challenges of recent years due to the economy.

"That's a very powerful model, and I think that could be strengthened by a more collective kind of thinking, provincial level-to-provincial level interactions, and grouping together to do some important international collaborations, which we have a pretty strong track record on already," Meulien said.

He cited a publicly-funded consortium created when researchers in Quebec and British Columbia who developed a conifer tree genomics platform tied their efforts to research initiatives by the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, the European Union's main instrument for funding research in Europe from 2007-2013.

"Already, some of the forestry companies and some of the forest managers are going to get involved in that kind of thing. So I think as we go forward, this engagement of end users across all of the sectors is going to be very important," Meulien added.

Genome Canada's operations include six Science and Technology Innovation Centres. This year the organization has set aside C$20 million for the S&T centers — which are now peer-reviewing projects seeking portions of that funding.

"Next year, it's going to be part of our continued plan to reinvest in these technologies," Meulien said. "Nobody else is going to be at the cutting edge apart from these real experts in these innovation centers. So that's where we're going to put money."
Money will also be invested, he said, in new technologies and infrastructure, in partnership with other federal agencies and instrument makers.

Among the technologies and infrastructure needed most, he said, are those used in bioinformatics – "brainpower, machine power, new computational models, new algorithms and all the rest of it."

"Although we do have very strong bioinformatics in Canada, with all of the data being produced with all of the high-throughput machines, being able to analyze and manage that data is still one of the biggest gaps that we need to fill," Meulien said.

Meulien is joining Genome Canada from Genome British Columbia, where he has served as chief scientific officer since 2007. Genome BC is a non-profit organization that funds and manages large-scale genomics and proteomics research projects, as well as enabling technologies focused on human health, forestry, fisheries, bioenergy, mining, agriculture, and the environment.

The new Genome Canada position "gives me an opportunity to really shape a national genomic strategy for Canada after $1.8 billion going into the system over the past 10 years," he said. "A fantastic capacity-build has been made, and Canadian researchers are at the forefront of the whole scene. There's really a huge potential both in remaining at the cutting edge, and then bringing these technologies to the end users, which is pretty important."

Meulien is the permanent successor to Genome Canada's founding President and CEO, Martin Godbout, who served from 2000 to 2009, when he stepped down. Last month, Godbout was appointed chairman of MethylGene's board of directors; he has served as a member of the company's board since 2002.

After Godbout stepped down, Dale Patterson, Genome Canada's vice president of external relations, stepped in as an interim president and CEO. Patterson will continue in his VP role.

Before joining Genome BC, Meulien previously served as CEO at Dublin Molecular Medicine Centre, and earlier managed research teams as senior vice president of R&D with Aventis Pasteur in Toronto, and before that as director of research with Aventis Pasteur France in Lyon. He also had previously served as a research scientist and part of the management team during seven years with the French biotechnology company Transgene in Strasbourg, France.

Meulien was awarded his PhD by the University of Edinburgh, and was appointed to a postdoctoral position at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.

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