Genome British Columbia - Genome Genomics

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“A Month of Sundays” – The Founding of Genome British Columbia

Officially, Genome British Columbia was founded on July 31st, 2000, the day of its legal incorporation. But long before that, the vision to build a genomics-focused “innovation community” in BC was already on the minds of certain visionaries. People like Dr. Roger Foxall, who would become Genome BC’s first President and CEO, and the late Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Smith, who would eventually be appointed to Genome BC’s first Board of Directors. They, along with many others, worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes to make Genome BC a reality.

From Halifax to the Island of Capri: the inspiration for Genome BC

An unexpected phone call in Halifax and a chance meeting on the Island of Capri: seemingly unrelated events occurring years apart and thousands of kilometres from British Columbia. But, in hindsight, both proved to be decisive events in Genome BC’s history.

The year was 1992. It was a Sunday afternoon and Roger Foxall was convalescing at home in Halifax after a recent surgery. It was a rare moment of relaxation, albeit medically imposed, for the self-described workaholic and intrepid world traveler. Foxall, who was at that point Director General of the National Research Council’s Institute for Marine Biosciences (IMB) in Halifax, received an unexpected phone call from Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University.

Doolittle had called to talk about the new science of ‘genomics’. By the end of the conversation, it had been agreed that IMB scientists would join with Doolittle’s group and a group at the University of Ottawa to propose the sequencing of Sulfolobus solfataricus, a thermophilic microbe, to learn more about the evolutionary biology and explore industrial applications for the microbe, which can withstand extreme temperatures.

The project was later funded and IMB became the first federal laboratory in Canada to become involved in large-scaled genomics research. “As the project succeeded, I came to realize that genomics is absolutely fundamental to our understanding of how organisms function,” says Foxall, “Crops, livestock, fisheries, forestry, the environment, our health – these are the foundation of our economy and I knew genomics would have an enormous impact in all these areas.”

Creating a genomics “innovation community” in BC

Fast forward to 1997 when Foxall was contemplating his upcoming retirement. Increasingly convinced that genomics was essential to the economy, his plan was to move to BC and establish a consulting company focused on the life sciences. But he was also planning to embark on a mission: “I wanted to do whatever I could to create an ‘innovation community’ focused on genomics in BC.”

“I want to talk to you about genomics”

As luck would have it, a fortuitous meeting in September 1997 – coincidentally on another Sunday afternoon – would further set the stage for the founding of Genome BC.

A few months before moving to BC, Foxall was in Italy to attend the 4th International Marine Biotechnology Conference. All of the conference’s keynote speakers were Nobel laureates. “My wife and I were walking in Capri when I noticed another couple coming the other way. I remember saying to my wife ‘That looks like Michael Smith.’ And sure enough it was,” recalls Foxall, who at that point knew the UBC scientist only by reputation. Foxall wasted no time in introducing himself.

“I said, ‘I’m Roger Foxall and want to talk to you about genomics.’ We stood there in Capri, discussing genomics and how important it could be to Canada and BC.” As it turned out, Smith had recently agreed to lead the new Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency (renamed Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre after Smith’s untimely death in 2000). In a true meeting of minds, the two found many more opportunities to discuss genomics during the week-long conference.

One day, on the way to the ferry

Shortly after moving to Victoria a few months later, Foxall began approaching his network of contacts and potential stakeholders about creating a “genomics network” in BC, which Foxall wanted to call “Genome British Columbia”. “I was driving to the ferry one day when the name popped into my head,” he recounts.

One of the first people Foxall contacted was Michael Smith. “I remember being in Michael’s office at UBC,” recalls Foxall. “When he heard me say what I thought the organization should be called, he wrote the name down. I’ll never forget that.”

The Genome Canada Task Force visits BC

Meanwhile, in 1998 a national “Genome Canada Task Force” was formed by the Medical Research Council. Co-chaired by Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui, the geneticist-in-chief at The Hospital for Sick Children who had discovered a significant cystic fibrosis gene mutation, and Dr. Art Carty, president of the National Research Council, the task force travelled the country to solicit ideas for a “new national scientific enterprise” and “coalition of interests” to fund genomics research. Michael Smith was appointed as a member.

Dr. Martin Godbout, also a member of the task force, met with several individuals and organizations in BC, including Foxall. Godbout later became chief author of the “Blueprint and Principles” proposal to create a federal funding organization for genomics – to be called “Genome Canada”. (Godbout would later become Genome Canada’s first President and CEO.)

“At first, the task force’s model for funding regional centres was to fund platforms only,” notes Foxall. “It was Michael who helped create a change to focus on funding large-scale research projects, as well as platforms.” Rumours began circulating that Genome Canada might be funded by the federal government in an upcoming budget – and that the new organization would fund genome research centres across the country.

The “real founding” of Genome BC

At the urging of Foxall and Smith, Dr. David Dolphin – at that point Acting VP Research at UBC, an observer on Genome Canada’s initial Board of Directors and later a member and Chair of Genome BC’s Board of Directors – called what become the inaugural meeting of the nascent Genome BC community.

“We had to be ready,” explains Foxall. On October 3rd, 1999 – on yet another Sunday afternoon – about 60 individuals, many of whom were major players in the life sciences research community in BC, turned up at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC. They represented universities, research hospitals, other research centres, industry and government. Dr. Dolphin chaired the meeting.

“At the beginning of the meeting, Michael introduced me to the entire group,” recounts Foxall. “We would not have been able to accomplish what we did without that introduction. By the end of the meeting, I had been volunteered to develop committees in key areas of research, and we had the makings of a new organization. This was the real founding of Genome BC,” says Foxall.

“The race is on”: A genome centre for BC

As part of “Budget 2000”, Genome Canada received $160 million in funding from the federal government. Genome Canada appointed Dr. Henry Friesen as Chair, Dr. Martin Godbout as President and CEO, and Marc LePage as Executive Vice President. The Genome BC Planning Committee, headed by Foxall, began preparing a business plan and genome centre application.

“We had heard that a group in the Atlantic, which included Ford Doolittle, had already begun creating a draft business plan for a regional genome centre, and had a group in Saskatchewan. An undeclared race had begun,” remembers Foxall.

In response to a request by Genome Canada, the Genome BC Planning Committee submitted a Letter of Intent on November 16, 2000, proposing that Genome BC “be a ‘virtual’ research institute that, instead of trying to assemble expensive facilities and scientists under one roof, will leverage other resources that already exist in BC, and will own or jointly own core genomics equipment placed in several institutions.”

Genome BC’s “Genome Centre Application” was submitted to Genome Canada on January 26, 2001. Foxall, along with many other dedicated individuals, worked tirelessly to prepare the applications. “I was at my desk for almost 36 hours straight leading up to the submission” remembers Foxall. “It was intense.”

Genome BC awarded $69.5 million in funding

On April 4, 2001, Genome Canada announced $136 million in funding to support 22 large-scale research projects and technology platforms at five Genome Centres across the country. Genome BC was approved for a total of $69.5 million in funding, with $35 million awarded by Genome Canada.

The remainder of the funding – $34.5 million – was later secured by Genome BC from the Province of British Columbia and other sources, such as Western Economic Diversification Canada, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and other private sector and international organizations.

Foxall credits BC’s climate of openness for Genome BC’s success and names Michael Smith as a key figure. “In BC, new ideas are eagerly sought. How many places will accept someone just flying in and not long after starting a major new organization?” he notes, added “Michael Smith helped me to be accepted by the local scientific community in BC, which, in turn, helped Genome BC. We inspired each other with a vision of genomics in BC and worldwide.”

What comes next?

Chronicling events of the last 10 years is an immense challenge; so many people and innovations have made Genome BC what it is today. Ultimately, Genome BC’s success is the product of a collaborative and innovative culture that still guides the organization today under the leadership of current President and CEO, Pascal Spothelfer.

But even as we look back at Genome BC’s founding, we continue to move forward with fast-moving science and technology. As part of Genome BC’s continued pursuit of world-class genomics research and beneficial outcomes, we must always challenge ourselves to ask “What comes next?”

This account of Genome BC’s founding is based on interviews with Dr. Roger Foxall, Genome BC’s first President and CEO. It was originally published in November 2010, as part of Genome BC’s 10 year anniversary.