Early November drizzle falls outside the MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto but inside the atmosphere is warm and buzzing. Excited chatter echoes off the brick walls and glass ceiling of the four-storey atrium — part of a restored heritage building that artfully preserves the 100-year-old College Wing of Toronto General Hospital — and the floor space is packed with displays. While television screens flash with exciting promotional videos and colourful billboards show off new products, young entrepreneurs in business attire pass out brochures and exchange business cards. They look confident and comfortable as they talk up their startup companies to anyone and everyone who stops by. But until quite recently, most of them were more likely to be found wearing a lab coat than a suit and tie.
“TechnoShowcase” is the latest in a long line of ideas that has sprung from the brain of Cynthia Goh. It is a testament to her core belief: scientific research and business innovation need one another. “I firmly believe that if you’re going to build game-changing products, you need to understand fundamental science,” says Goh, a physical chemist and entrepreneurship evangelist based at the University of Toronto. “No matter your industry, one day there’s going to be a revolution in the science and you will need people who understand how to build it into a revolution in the marketplace.”
Young entrepreneurs jam the floor space at the TechnoShowcase in Toronto this past November. The event featured more than 40 companies that have been founded through initiatives started by University of Toronto chemistry professor Cynthia Goh. Photo by: Impact Centre
Goh knows whereof she speaks. Since 2000, her laboratory’s research into the behaviour of large molecules like polymers and proteins has spawned three separate companies: Axela Biosensors Inc., Dalenyi BioSurfaces Inc. and Vive Crop Protection Inc. “A lot of graduate students don’t end up in academia,” says Darren Anderson, who graduated from Goh’s lab in 2006 and is now Chief Technology Officer at Vive Crop Protection. “Cynthia recognizes that and does a really good job preparing her students for it.” Last November, Anderson’s company opened its first commercial production plant in Scarborough, Ont. and, pending regulatory approval, its products will be on the market this year.
Back in 1999, Goh was a successful chemistry professor with many papers to her credit. However, she was getting “antsy” about the fact that her work wasn’t being applied to real-world problems. “I challenged myself to put my money where my mouth was,” she says. Undeterred by her lack of business experience, Goh admits it was probably an asset the first time she picked up the phone to call a potential investor. “I didn’t feel nervous because I had absolutely no idea what it was about,” she chuckles. Luckily, the person on the other end of the line just happened to be the most perfect match she could have asked for.
That person was Ilse Treurnicht, a fellow chemist who was running Primaxis Technology Ventures, a startup-stage venture capital fund focused on advanced technologies. Treurnicht agreed to become Goh’s first investor in what would eventually become Axela. She also began a relationship that would continue after Treurnicht became the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto-based hub for technical entrepreneurship, in 2005.
In fact, one of MaRS’ flagship programs, Entrepreneurship 101, began as a small, non-credit course that Goh offered to graduate students at U of T. “I tried to teach them what I’d learned from my experience with Axela, all the things that you don’t learn in the classroom,” Goh says. She invited guest speakers to give talks on intellectual property, market research, writing a business plan, marketing and a host of other topics. The course became so popular that it outgrew Goh’s facilities in the U of T Institute of Optical Sciences, so Treurnicht invited her to hold the sessions in the auditorium at MaRS. Today the lecture series is open to the public and is attended by about 1,000 people each week, with thousands more joining by webcast. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the program.
Cynthia Goh, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, has helped found three companies based on her laboratory’s research and mentored the founders of dozens more. Photo by: Impact Centre
Still, Goh felt that there was room to do more. Over the years, Entrepreneurship 101 had evolved to cater to a wider audience, including entrepreneurs in digital media or retail. Goh saw a gap in entrepreneurship training specifically for scientists and engineers, a group she calls “technopreneurs.” Her answer was Techno, a four-week intensive entrepreneurship training program launched in 2010. To house the new program, Goh pulled together various sources of funding to launch the Impact Centre, an on-campus organization dedicated to technology acceleration.
Located in the Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, directly across the street from MaRS Discovery District, the Impact Centre contains wet labs, dry labs, prototyping equipment, office space, meeting rooms and just about everything required to help get new businesses off the ground. “The discovery of insulin by Banting and Best was commercialized right here, in only two years,” says Richard McAloney, another of Goh’s former students, now the Director of Technology Management and Entrepreneurship at the Impact Centre. “While not all companies will hit that same timeline, our goal is to repeat that level of success, many times over.” TechnoShowcase, which features more than 40 of the companies that have either participated in Techno or come through the Impact Centre, is a testament to how far the team has come.
Techno’s philosophy could be summed up as follows: learn to build a company by actually doing it. Guest speakers are still a feature of the program, but mostly the dozen or so teams selected to participate every year focus on the practical work of writing business plans, doing market research and pitching to potential investors. They are supported by a network of like-minded individuals who are available for mentoring and advice. “One of the most difficult things for me was being able to talk with non-scientists about my invention,” says McKinty, who at the age of 27 is president of his own startup, Ruthenika Inc. “Every second day we’d give presentations and offer feedback to each other,” he says. “Even today I can go and practice a pitch with them any time I want.”
As McKinty delivers his elevator pitch on the show floor, it’s clear that the practice has paid off. McKinty has created a new catalyst for olefin metathesis, a key step in making pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals, polymers, biofuels and much more. The standard family of catalysts used to speed up this reaction — known as Grubbs’ catalysts after their inventor Robert H. Grubbs — are all owned by the same company, a monopoly that leads to higher costs for chemical producers. McKinty’s new version works just as well, but is offered at a much lower price, an enticing prospect for chemical producers eager to find efficiencies in a competitive market.
Chematria’s algorithms test the ability of known molecules to bind to various proteins, such as this one from the Ebola virus, in the hope of discovering new drug functionalities. Photo by: Impact Centre
Most Techno graduates are current or former U of T students like McKinty but there are others here as well. Katharine Sepp and Joost Schulte of Oxalys, Inc. started their company while working as post-doctoral fellows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, they used robots to scan through hundreds of cultures of live brain cells, each of which was treated with either a small amount of an already-approved drug molecule or a bit of DNA designed to block a specific gene/protein/pathway. The method allows them to identify existing drugs that could be put to new use as therapeutics for difficult brain diseases like Huntington’s, as well as key biochemical pathways that could be targeted by new drugs in the future.
Because both Sepp and Schulte were Canadians, the MIT Venture Mentoring service advised them to incorporate their company in Canada. Sepp found herself in Toronto, attending weekly sessions of Entrepreneurship 101 and learning everything she could about running a startup. It was a grant from the Ontario Brain Institute’s New Entrepreneurship program that led the team to Techno. “The value of that experience was coming into contact with a lot of new entrepreneurs,” says Schulte. “We’re all solving the same types of problems.” That includes everything from weighing the pros and cons of patents versus trade secrets to finding an accountant who can help apply for innovation-based tax credits. “Everyone is looking for seed funding and that information is exchanged as well,” says Sepp. Advice from another entrepreneur led her to a program called VentureStart, funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. Along with support from many other groups, including the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the funding got Oxalys to the point where it is now in preparations for a clinical trial of its Huntington’s disease therapeutic, OXD-4, which may start as early as next year.
On the other side of the hall at TechnoShowcase, Abraham Heifets stands in front of a computer screen displaying a 3D model of a viral protein. As you watch, chemical structures flash in and out of existence, each seeking the best way to nestle up against the bumps and grooves of the protein’s surface. The display visualizes the powerful computing platform developed by his company, Chematria Inc., which scans through millions of existing molecules and determines which ones could be useful to bind to various targets, all without using a single test tube. While computer-based searches for drug candidates are nothing new, Chematria is gaining an edge by deep learning neural networks, an algorithm similar to those that power Siri, the voice-recognition software used on modern iPhones. Chematria runs its programs on supercomputers up to 30,000 times more powerful than the average laptop and tests them against vast online databases of well-known molecules shown to be safe for human consumption. All of these factors — better machine learning, faster supercomputers, larger databases — combine to raise the chances of generating a hit.
Abe Heifets is the CEO of Chematria Inc., a startup that uses computer algorithms to search for new drug candidate molecules. Photo by: Chematria, Inc.
Heifets attended Techno in the summer of 2012 and, like his fellow drug-hunters at Oxalys, found that one of the biggest advantages was the network it provided. “They have people who can talk about intellectual property, patent filing, marketing and fundraising — anything you might have questions about,” he says. For example, a conversation with a fellow entrepreneur he met there led him to Grand Challenges Canada, a government agency that funds projects aimed at leveraging scientific, technological and social innovation to improve global health outcomes. Grand Challenges Canada is currently funding two of Chematria’s projects, one on malaria and the other on safer pesticides, both done in collaboration with developing-world researchers. The company also recently made headlines with another project searching for molecules that might be effective in fighting the Ebola virus.
McAloney says that the Impact Centre’s mission has been boosted by a shift in public policy thinking. “Five or 10 years ago there was limited support for commercializing science,” he says. “Today it’s an entirely different landscape, with a wide range of potential partner organizations and support available across Canada.” As an example, he points to the Smart Sustainable Lighting Network, which brings together federal and provincial agencies (Natural Resources Canada, Ontario Centres of Excellence) along with industry to promote innovation in solid-state lighting (such as LED lights) that is poised to dramatically lower energy use in the coming decades. Networks like this are growing and with the appropriate local modifications, McAloney sees no reason why the Impact Centre’s model could not be exported to other cities or provinces. “The key is to not be afraid to reach out and get it,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is now looked upon favorably at universities across Canada and the connected world that we live in today helps enormously for finding the resources you need.”
Another trend may also be at work. As the number of highly trained science graduates expands, students are more willing to strike out on their own. Darren Anderson, who made the journey from lab to marketplace himself eight years ago, believes that science students make ideal entrepreneurs. “They believe that they’re going to be able to change the world, with all the enthusiasm and excitement that somebody at that stage in their life can bring,” Anderson says. Adam McKinty of Ruthenika echoes those thoughts and says that institutions should do more to make students aware of their choices. “I always thought I would either stay in academia or get a job with one of the big chemical companies,” McKinty says. “When I discovered that starting my own company was a viable career path, that was really exciting. My advice to others would be to consider it. It is an option.”