The Canadian Technology Accelerator experience, a valuable path in the journey to build and grow a companyRobert Foldes, Founder and CEO of Viteava Pharmaceuticals
In addition to my role as founder/entrepreneur bringing all of the components together to build an innovative drug development company, there are many other essential contributors towards this effort from the Canadian start-up company ecosystem. I would like to highlight a few.
First and foremost, McGill University provided the environment and support for Prof. Bill Chan’s research, generating the foundation for a new class of promising drug candidates. This support extended to investment in the protection of the resulting intellectual property and willingness to engage entrepreneurs in dialogue. Structuring a shared-risk and creative business arrangement with McGill and several other universities, was also critical to the creation of the new venture to further develop Prof. Chan’s intellectual property. Next, I need to acknowledge that Viteava Pharmaceuticals could only have been launched following its success in leveraging funds from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Proof-of-Principle (POPII) program as well as several programs originating through FedDev. This allowed a significant extension of small equity investments from founders and family, to fuel the research and development required to advance the drug candidates and hopefully attract institutional investors.
The stage was set. The company was incorporated. License and research agreements were in place. Relationships were in place with contract research organizations for chemical synthesis, analytical and bioanalytical method development, formulation development, metabolism, pharmacokinetic and toxicology studies. The results were unfolding according to plan. Now the company needed to plan for a subsequent and larger financing.
In the present day – there are three venture capital firms with a presence in Ontario and/or Quebec with the ability to act as a lead investor in a preclinical-stage therapeutics company. All of these firms also invest throughout Canada and the U.S. Although there are slow signs of improvement, this is by far the worst financing environment for a Canadian-based start-up preclinical-stage therapeutics company that I have seen in my 25-year career.
The financing environment for such a company is drastically different in the U.S. and one of the top bio/pharma ecosystems in the world is accessible by car and a short plane ride from both Montreal and Toronto. Boston alone has the presence of more than fourteen venture capital firms that invest in preclinical-stage therapeutics companies. As a vital component of the innovation ecosystem, Boston also has life science-focused angel investment groups, together with a significant R&D presence of many major pharmaceutical companies. And as a consequence of this vibrant ecosystem, there are plenty of drug development executives who have “been there, done that”, succeeded and happy to help others. So, many are Canadian ex-pats, frustrated by the lack of opportunity north of the border, but willing to help others. As a result – Canadian Entrepreneurs in New England (CENE) was established.
And now for the vital role of the Canadian Technology Accelerator (CTA) program in Boston. This program managed by the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) at the Consulate General of Canada, provides a soft-landing for Canadian entrepreneurs interested in expanding their networks in the Boston community. It very much accelerates an entrepreneur’s introduction to, and access to, the Boston innovation ecosystem. The CTA program has a strategic relationship with CENE in the delivery of its services.
Essentially, I found five components of the CTA program to be very valuable.
1) The first starts with the energy, enthusiasm, interest, advice and networks of the Consulate General of Canada’s Trade Commissioners – readily at my disposal.
2) The second is the amazing entrepreneurial buzz and infrastructure at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), the facility hosting the CTA in Kendall Square. The CIC is truly a model to be emulated and is sorely missing in my home base of Toronto.
3) The third continues with educational and networking events organized through the TCS, the CIC, CENE, or other area groups (there are many).
4) The fourth absolute highlight involves the outstanding mentors/executives in sheer abundance and with deep relevant sector expertise to provide valuable feedback, insight and guidance tailored to my needs.
5) And finally, but often overlooked is the camaraderie and acceptance of other entrepreneurs that surrounded me on a daily basis – many of whom will lead to long-lasting friendships.
My goals in participating in the CTA program focused on getting feedback to validate our corporate strategy and value proposition and to finalize our investor materials – business plan and slide deck. It was important to get independent views relating to any gaps that should be filled in order to improve our positioning. Very early input suggested that clinical advisors would lend important credibility to our story. In short order, we successfully recruited a world-leading clinical advisory board. Also central to my goals was to secure face-to-face meetings with leading venture capital groups and begin to build relationships while enhancing the company’s visibility. All of these goals were achieved. I am pretty certain that I would not have been able to get the face-time as rapidly without being immersed in the community. I left my stay in Boston with the beginnings of a potential investor syndicate.
As a veteran of the life science sector, I have visited Boston on numerous occasions for conferences and business meetings. The experience as a “resident” is decidedly different and provides unique perspectives. It is hard to describe the intense emotions that stirred within me, almost every day that I spent in this “holy site” for the bio/pharma industry. It might be akin to coming home and to a place where everybody speaks your language and in some way is also pursuing the overarching goal of improving human health. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to participate in the CTA program. It has left me with many warm memories and I expect to return to Boston regularly – hopefully even as a part-time tenant of the CIC.