Initiative links academia, private sector to drive innovation

Demand for Canadian know-how driving effort to foster partnerships between university researchers and outside companies

Yu Tian Wang, chief scientific officer at Primary Peptides, and Wu Yang Jin, post-doctoral researcher hired through Mitacs | Chuck Chiang

The national non-profit group tasked with linking Canadian academic researchers and the private sector is seeing a spike in the uptake of its internship program, indicating a jump in demand for Canadian startup talent, officials said.

And with programs linking the private sector and university research talent increasingly globalized, the group’s work may now play a key role in pushing innovation developed in Canada onto the world stage, boosting the local economy while also maximizing the country’s considerable academic resources, executives from Mitacs said.

One such case is the story of Primary Peptides Inc., a company developing medical technology founded by three University of British Columbia (UBC) professors, which is now close to starting its first clinical trial on humans for its new stroke medicine. That progress, officials said, was made possible with the help of researchers linked to the company by Mitacs, and by a crucial licensing agreement with Chinese conglomerate Yabao Pharmaceutical Group.

Primary Peptides researcher Wu Yang Jin, who was hired by the company through Mitacs’ research internship program, said the agreement was a natural fit.

“They have the money, but they don’t have the technology; we have the technology, but we don’t have the money. So that’s where the partnership comes in.”

UBC Prof. Yu Tian Wang, who is also Primary’s chief scientific officer, said having access to developers like Jin was crucial since it opened funding channels that allowed the startup, with three founders and three employees, to conduct proper research and development.

“The company is small,” Wang said. “At this moment, we don’t have any business officers or anything relating to the business side, and at the same time, we still need a pipeline to test our products, to make sure they are good or not. So we need top scientists like Mr. Jin to work with us, to enhance the attractiveness of the products.”

Mitacs CEO and scientific director Alejandro Adem said Primary is only one example of the private sector’s growing appetite for Canadian researchers. The demand is especially high in fields like artificial intelligence development and clean technology, and the numbers are large enough that Mitacs is expecting its research internship program to grow to 10,000 approved candidates by 2020, doubling the expected figure of 5,000 this year.

Adem said the projection is for that number to balloon to 25,000 by the year 2025. The program, which requires companies taking on the interns to match the funding provided by Mitacs, is aimed at helping to swiftly secure employment for recent Canadian PhD graduates.

“When you are competing around the world, R&D is crucially important,” Adem said, adding it’s time for Canada to transform some of its academic prowess into economic gains. “What we want to do is to help facilitate the flow of the knowledge that’s at our educational institutions into the private sector, because the universities we have in Canada are some of the very best in the world.”

Since Yabao entered into its licensing agreement with Primary in 2015, giving the Chinese firm exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the stroke medicine in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the company has invested US$3 million in Primary’s research process to get the drug to its first clinical trial on humans, Jin said.

He added that another US$5 million to US$6 million and US$20 million will be needed for phases 2 and 3, respectively, highlighting the importance for companies like Primary to secure investors like Yabao.

“Without it, it doesn’t happen,” Jin said. “If we do it fast, the whole process would still take at least eight years. You have to make sure it’s safe and up to Health Canada standards. That process by itself takes time and effort, so it’s a significant investment.”

Wang added that to get such investment, especially from Asia, the involvement of Canadian research is crucial, since Canada’s brand inspires consumer trust – and programs like Mitacs’ research internship resolve the chicken-and-egg cycle by giving small startups like Primary a crack at hiring homegrown talent, which can draw an investment like Yabao’s.

“There’s a big gap between a research lab and a big pharmaceutical company, especially now since many pharmaceuticals don’t want to take on too many new products at an early clinical stage of development from a lab,” Wang said. “In order to move forward, it’s important for us to fill that gap.”

He said Primary expects to close a second deal in China on another medical product in the next year, and the company may participate further in hiring interns through Mitacs if the demand supports it.