In the world of molecular catalysts, the “Dal” name is somewhat famous.
That’s because the university’s nickname is attached to an extremely popular family of catalysts created by chemist Mark Stradiotto and his research team.
“There are only so many metals – just look at the periodic table,” says Dr. Stradiotto. “But if you can design ligands that can then bind to and encapsulate the metal, you can convince the metal to do reactions that have synthetic utility. It’s like designing little machines that can perform otherwise challenging chemical reactions.
“In our field, when you’ve done this, if you’ve made one that’s successful and usual, and if there’s a commercial bent, you give it a cutesy name that's easy to remember. These ligands generally have ‘Phos’ in the name, owing the presence of phophorus, so we named our ligand family ‘DalPhos.’ And now that name is known around the world.”
DalPhos ligands have been licensed to several major chemical companies. And last month, Dalhousie signed an option agreement with GreenCentre Canada for a whole new catalyst from Dr. Stradiotto and his team, this one named OTips-DalPhos. This new ligand has proven particularly useful in reactions that make indoles, molecules that are attractive targets in medicinal chemistry.
The research has been supported by Springboard Atlantic, which provided funds for patenting and proof of concept, followed by NSERC's Idea-to-Innovation and Innovacorp's Early Stage Commercialization fund to complete the early stage development.
Thinking in real-life application
Dr. Stradiotto credits the success of his process—which starts with designing on paper and leads through lab development of new catalysts—to a commitment to thinking about real-life applications from the start.
“I get a lot of grant proposals or see [conference] talks where they have these very complicated ligands they’re proposing that are not feasible, or the efficiency doesn’t work out,” he explains. “The ones we’ve developed really have an emphasis on simplicity. That’s why industry likes them: they can clip these together quickly.”
Dr. Stradiotto has been working closely with Dalhousie’s Industry Liaison and Innovation office for several years now, collaborating to advance the commercial application of his research. He refers to them as, “part of our research team, in a way. They help us make connections.”
“Commercializing ligand work is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says ILI’s Kevin Buchan, on finding the right connections between a researcher’s work and industry. “The problem is that you don’t want to patent the hay. That’s prohibitively expensive. So we switched gears to try and get attention to Mark’s work, so when he was working on DalPhos there was already a lot of commercial interest and this shortened the path to market.”
Interesting, useful, successful
Together, Dr. Stradiotto and ILI considered when to shop his research around, and when it was best to publish it—which limits the licensing potential significantly—in the interest of further publicizing and promoting his work. In a competitive field, one where the time between idea and publishing can be as short as weeks, sometimes the best approach is simply to get the material out there.
“Designing ligands, in a sense, is like designing medical drugs, in the sense that you cannot know at first glance that it will be useful and high-performing – if that was the standard to start with, no one would do anything!” Dr. Stradiotto says with a laugh. “Sometimes, it’s fine to have an academic vision and have it stop there.
"But nothing would make me more excited than to do something that goes into the masses, that is both interesting and useful. You feel like you’ve had an impact on your field, not just the four walls of your lab.”
With the DalPhos ligand family, including the new OTips-DalPhos, Dr. Stradiotto’s catalysts are making their mark. GreenCentre Canada, a national Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research in green chemistry and member of the Ontario Network of Excellence, will be providing funds for additional proof of principle development of OTips-DalPhos within the option agreement. The grand prize in catalyst commercialization would be if a major pharmaceutical company were to license a significant quantity for large-scale use; that could mean millions in royalties.
But even as is, Dr. Stradiotto’s work on these catalysts has brought in close to $1 million in funds for research and development toward commercialization.
“Projects like this bring royalties and research dollars to the region, back to Nova Scotia. And they get me, and Dal out of the building. Dal now has an added credibility on the international stage.”