Seeking the skills to scale
Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s Close-up on the bio-economy: National report
Mediphage Bioceuticals’ made-in-Canada gene therapy platform could revolutionize medical treatments. But with commercialization skills hard to come by in Canada, the Toronto-based company is weighing the question of whether or not to move some operations to the U.S.
Q: What’s the unique promise of Mediphage Bioceuticals’ gene therapy platform?
ALVARO AMORRORTU, CEO: The research we’re building on provides a way to deliver DNA therapies without a virus-based carrier. That makes it possible to administer treatments with less risk of triggering patients’ immune systems. That could open up new treatment possibilities that are currently unavailable.
Q: What do you need most to reach your growth objectives?
AA: Talent. We’re looking to add six or seven people over the next year, and we expect to grow to 30 to 32 people over the next two years.
LEE BOWMAN, COO: The challenge is that there’s a worldwide shortage. The biotech industry is booming, and gene therapy is a relatively new field within it. Canadian universities produce a lot of high-quality and capable researchers, but not necessarily with the related business skills, and we’ll eventually need to pursue regulatory approval and continue advancing our platform.
AA: We’re also looking for some specialized skill sets — process development, for example. There are a few contract development manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) in Canada that we can tap into, but they’re expensive. Developing a manufacturing process internally would be more cost-effective, but that would put us in competition with the CDMOs for the same people.
Q: Where do you look for people currently?
LB: We recruit heavily from Canadian universities. Many of our R&D staff are either recent graduates, students on internships or have come to us through the internship placement agency, Mitacs. For our leadership however, we’ve had to look farther abroad and use our personal networks. For example, Alvaro is based in Boston. Now we’re weighing the question operationally, too: do we need to move some of our operations to the U.S.? It’s cumbersome to divide people among locations, and we’d rather not do it. But we can see a day when we may need to hire 10 more people, and we’re not certain the necessary talent we need is here in Canada.
Q: What impact did COVID-19 have on your operations?
LB: The shutdowns were tough for everyone. They slowed our hiring and growth and limited what we could do in our facilities, which postponed some of the results we’re gathering. But in a way it helped us, too. We began work on a COVID-19 vaccine using our platform, which allowed us to access funds we couldn’t have otherwise. DNA vaccines are now a key application of our platform, and the data coming from this work continues to complement our work advancing other applications and expanding our portfolio.
Q: From an HR perspective, how will you approach your next phase of growth?
AA: We would prefer to stay in Canada. We want to help the ecosystem develop further. Maybe we’ll branch into the U.S. for process development. Further down the road, and from a clinical and regulatory point of view, it would be easier to recruit a Chief Medical Officer with the right skills, experience and networks there, too. It’s the biggest market, and we’ll need people who’ve worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to run clinical trials and drive the approvals process.
LB: We know and understand how passionate the people in our ecosystem are, and they want to see it grow. We don’t want to see more of what happened with Providence Therapeutics: they were positioned to advance on a made-in-Canada COVID vaccine but now they’re leaving the country.* It would be a shame to see more of that.
* COVID-19 vaccine maker Providence says it’s leaving Canada after calls for more federal support go unanswered, CBC News, April 30, 2021.
Company profile: Mediphage Bioceuticals
Bio-economy sub-sectors: Bio-health
Mediphage Bioceuticals is a bio-health start-up founded in 2016 as a spin-off from the University of Waterloo. Its non-viral DNA therapy delivery platform for a more personalized and calibrated approach to treating disease is not possible using a viral delivery method.