by Noelle Chorney

Reno Pontarollo, President and CEO of Genome Prairie as of April 1, has taken the helm at an exciting time. The ag bio cluster in Saskatchewan is about to meet with new and exciting opportunities, particularly focused on the application and commercialization of genomics. As the longest serving full-time employee of Genome Prairie, Reno has a clear perspective of where the organization began, and where it’s going. “Our original goal was to build capacity in genomics expertise. Now we have a generation of scientists who embrace genomics as a tool. There is political will, and we are connected to an international community of scientists, ready to partner on new projects.”

The political will is taking the form of an upcoming national funding program developed in collaboration with Genome Canada. This program, known as the Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP) will enable the translation of a decade of genomics-based research from across all sectors into demonstrable economic and social benefits. The program will be officially announced later in the spring.

Once launched, the translational genomics program will foster a more productive interface between academic researchers and end-users, while directly addressing key challenges and opportunities facing industry. End-users could be an independent entrepreneur, a crop or livestock breeder, a regional health authority, or even government agencies. Projects will have significant commercial market potential and direct or indirect socio-economic benefits on health, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, energy, mining and environment.

The program funding will be able to support activities not normally supported by traditional agencies. Prototype development, regulatory approvals, patent registration and filing, business case development, market research and technology evaluation are all eligible for support. Genome Prairie is well-versed in undertaking genomics projects with direct application in industry: “since we’ve established our offices in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, we have not taken on a single project without an industry end-user involved,” says Reno. There is always room for improvement, and this is what Reno will strive for.

While leading a team that is located in both Saskatoon and Winnipeg, he intends to leverage the new program to further involve Genome Prairie with industry partners. “We will show the value that Genome Prairie brings to this community and to the economy of the region. We will use the same metrics as other economic players—tangible benefits, jobs, bottom lines… it’s all about applying research to generate positive economic outcomes.” “We will be encouraging the submission of proposals that more resemble business plans than scientific projects in this next phase of Genome Prairie’s evolution. In other words, our projects will be less focused on fundamental science and more about developing commercial opportunities.” Genome Prairie also enjoys a mutually beneficial partnership with Ag-West Bio and the universities of both provinces.

“We have a solid science and management acumen,” expands Reno, “the universities and Ag-West Bio provide the technology transfer and business capabilities we don’t have. All three perspectives will be key to success.” Education is another key component of moving genomics-based discoveries to practical application.

The Genome Prairie team will be working to improve understanding among the general public regarding what science can do. To meet this mandate, Genome Prairie will continue to take part in several outreach activities over the next few years, such as the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, which encourages high school students to explore research topics and careers in biotechnology.

Thanks to the collaborative mindset at the heart of the Prairie region’s ag-bio sector, Reno is confident that the cluster is well-positioned to take advantage of Canada’s new focus on industry led innovation. “Collaboration happens all the time. I expect strong proposals from the Prairie region in agriculture, energy and mining, and health.” It’s onward and upward for Genome Prairie and the industry it supports. “The Ag sector is especially well-positioned to reap the rewards of this opportunity. We have a great team here,” he concludes. “The future is ours for the making.”      


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