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Sequence Bio CEO Chris Gardner says Atlantic Canada shouldn’t sell itself short

Chris Gardner. Photo illustration by Belle DeMont
Chris Gardner. - Photo by Dave Howells. Photo illustration by Belle DeMont.

Making big ideas a reality

MEET CHRIS GARDNER

Things have never been easy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Where our forefathers struggled to settle, subsist and survive, modern generations are pushing through barriers to innovate, diversify and build at home.

It takes a certain doggedness to persevere and break through those walls, and Chris Gardner, CEO and President of Sequence Bio, is clearly up to the challenge.

The St. John’s-based company has been working towards becoming a player in early-stage pharmaceutical development by researching the unique genetic makeup of people from Newfoundland and Labrador to find better treatments, medicines and cures for the diseases that impact this province the most.

“We’ve all seen a loved one get sick and not get better as quickly or as painlessly as we’d like; we hope we can change that,” Gardner says.

“I believe Newfoundland and Labrador and the people here can help lead the world in research to bring us closer to important discoveries that will benefit us all.”

Like any company trying to establish itself in an already well-established industry, Gardner and the Sequence Bio team have faced their share of roadblocks along the way.

The most recent came to a head in 2018 when the young company felt it was necessary to take the provincial regulator — the Health Research Ethics Authority (HREA) and its board — to court in an effort to seek approval for its Newfoundland and Labrador Genome Pilot Project research application. At the time, the application had been before the regulator for more than 200 days, and Sequence argued the authority was obligated to render a decision within 30 days of receipt.

At the same time, the company started a campaign asking other researchers who have experienced delays to come forward and share their stories.

Turbulent waters calmed within a few short months, with the HREA announcing it would establish a separate subcommittee whose express purpose is to review applications to conduct genetic or genomic research on human subjects.

“We stuck to our core values and worked to make sure we always acted with integrity and fairness. The changes that we have helped enact over the past year have shown that it was worth the fight.”

But the victory, however sweet, was not the end of their fight.

Gardner feels regulatory processes across Canada are impeding innovation, and therefore are potentially impeding patient access and doing more harm than good to how Canada competes on the global health and bioscience stage.

“The regulatory system must be modernized, with the objective of ensuring that it serves as a catalyst for new products and services,” Gardner says.

“A high-performing regulatory system should be predictable, efficient, consistent and transparent, so as not to present barriers to innovation like we have right now.”

It’s not necessarily uncharted waters for Gardner, who worked closely with former Senator Jim Cowan to help pass Bill S-201, which ensures Canadians cannot be discriminated against based on their genetic code.

“If you had asked me five years ago if I would have been involved in amending the Canadian Human Rights Act, I would never have thought so,” Gardner exclaims.

Sophie Harrington, Sequence Bio’s vice-president of marketing and strategy, describes her boss as a big thinker and the first to tackle a problem head on — but not without recruiting the right people to find a solution and make a difference in doing so.

“He has a unique ability to think bigger than most, and he isn’t intimidated by that,” Harrington says. “I think that willingness to explore innovation and change on a large scale is a really special talent that will benefit this province in a significant way.”


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Q & A with Chris Gardner

Q: What do you want to learn or get better at in 2019

A: Balance is important for all of us … In 2019, I want to get my Cicerone designation to learn more about craft beer.

Q: What is one book that will be on your reading list?

A: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari

Q: What is one message you wish you could share with everyone in Atlantic Canada?

A: We need to stop selling ourselves short! Sometimes I think we confuse confidence with hubris, and that results in us not pushing forward like we need to. When you have a region full of some of the most tenacious, creative and passionate people in the world, I think we deserve to celebrate that. And whether it’s drug discovery or another industry, I know we can build the next great global company right here at home.

Q: What is one specific piece of advice you have for readers who are in the first decade of their career?

A: The riskiest move you can make when you start your career is taking no risk. So, apply for that job in a foreign country, join a startup, go back to school or make that big idea a reality.

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