Research institute launched out of U of A attracts $25 million in investments
Aiming to boost the biotech landscape in Edmonton, Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation has enlisted veteran biotech executive Robert Foster’s Hepion Pharmaceuticals, along with about 19 other companies, to help turn university research into pharmaceutical products.
“This is a big win for Edmonton, especially if we want to become a health city. It was an easy pitch for us to get all of (our) partners engaged and on board,” said CEO of Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation (API) Andrew MacIsaac, who is also an assistant dean in the faculty of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences at the U of A.
The institute attracted $25 million in investments since it launched out of the University of Alberta late last year.
Robert Foster built “a who’s who in the industry that went on to create an ecosystem” when he founded Isotechnika, the Edmonton-based company that later became Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, said MacIsaac. Now CEO of New Jersey-based Hepion Pharmaceuticals, Foster was impressed by API’s research labs, equipment and facilities.
API’s potential is especially exciting for those in the industry who don’t want to have to move to industry hubs like San Diego and Boston, Foster said.
“I don’t see anything like this in Canada,” said Foster.
The institute’s mission is to provide researchers with the drug development know-how to attract investment as well as providing an opportunity for students to gain work experience in the pharmaceutical industry, said MacIsaac.
For Foster, API represents a “transformational effort,” and has the people and infrastructure that Hepion needs to understand and develop new drugs that could be used to treat liver diseases, for example. “The problem we want to solve is: how do you know what’s going on in people’s livers? I think if we can put our heads together we can get a lot more mileage,” said Foster.
API was incorporated as a not-for-profit in November 2018 to bring pharmaceutical research projects to Edmonton, and help train and employ students and post-doctoral researchers.
Until then, there was no framework to pull the right scientists and industry investors together. Co-ordinating the right experts and securing funding was a process that usually took a year, “which in the business world just doesn’t work,” said MacIsaac.
And, the skill set that it takes to make a major biotech discovery is totally different from the skill set it takes to develop that drug and bring it to market.
Collaborating with the university at arm’s length, API partnered with about 20 companies from local small enterprises to large multinationals, including Edmonton-based medicinal cannabis producer Aurora Cannabis Inc.
Edmonton’s economy needs to pivot, and API can help the area to diversify, Foster said.
“For me it’s important to see this evolution in the province. We have to become less reliant on natural resources, and I think most Albertans recognize that now,” said Foster.
Rather than sending graduate students to work for large pharmaceutical companies outside Canada, MacIsaac wanted to build an institute that could bring those companies, and whatever questions they needed to be solved, to researchers in Edmonton.
The institute also signed a $6-million deal with national non-profit research organization Mitacs to support up to 100 internships for post-doctoral fellow and graduate students over the next five years.
API could create up to 75 jobs in the next few years working with between 30 and 40 companies, said MacIsaac.