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Biotech Boosting C-Level Teams

Kevin Sullivan’s move to Nova Scotia is part of a healthy development in Atlantic Canada’s life sciences sector. Having lived in the province when he was younger, Sullivan spent 10 years in London, Ont., working for a biotech start-up called Viron Therapeutics Inc., which was developing a cardiovascular drug.

Last summer, Sullivan was visiting the family cottage near Windsor, N.S., when he heard about Don Weaver, a Halifax medical doctor who was involved in several start-ups. Sullivan ended up becoming the CEO at one of those companies, DeNovaMed, which is developing new compounds that could treat infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria, or superbugs.

Sullivan’s appointment means that DeNovaMed, which in 2012 won Innovacorp’s I-3 competition, now has a guiding hand to plot the development and financing of what eventually will become its lead drug candidate.

Sullivan is impressed by the company, by being in the antibiotics space, and by the Atlantic Canadian programs that allow companies such as DeNovaMed to leverage the capital they raise from investors. Atlantic Canada is “a lot more capital friendly than Ontario,” says Sullivan. “It’s not free money, but if you can find investment, you can leverage it up.”

There’s ann interesting thing happening in the regional biotech and med-tech sectors: the companies founded by academics are strengthening their corporate teams. For a few years, researchers have produced medical innovation that is ripe for commercialization. However, they need help from executives with corporate experience who can navigate the tricky regulatory pathway and understand the other obstacles to bringing products to market. Sullivan is one of several of these hires.

Halifax-based ABK Biomedical has appointed as its CEO Pat O’Connor, a former executive with Boston Scientific Corp., a worldwide developer, manufacturer, and marketer of medical devices. Headed for most of its existence by Dalhousie University dental and medical researcher Daniel Boyd, ABK is developing a device that will help treat uterine fibroids (benign tumours in a woman’s uterus).

At the recent Atlantic Venture Forum, Halifax investor James Drage said that his portfolio company Dartmouth Medical Research has hired Mehdi Kazemzadeh-Narbat as head of research. Drage described him as “a Daniel Boyd type”—a man bursting with ideas that could be commercialized. DMR is developing an absorbable glue to replace plates and screws in the repair of fractures in certain bones and joints.

Drage revealed that talks are ongoing for hiring a CEO for another of his portfolio companies, Coccicorp, which is developing tools to diagnose and prevent Coccidiodomycosis, or Valley Fever, a serious fungal infection that is difficult to detect and treat.

This fleshing out of management teams has been going on for some time. O’Connor was hired late last year, and last July Charlottetown-based Neurodyn bought Halifax-based NeuroQuest, adding veteran life sciences exec Bob Cervelli to its team.

So what does all of this mean? It means there’s a community—I prefer that term to the overused “cluster”—of biotech businesspeople in the region. They can offer peer-to-peer support to each other. When events are held, the conversation will deepen because of the number and quality of participants. They can share networks.

A big biotech win or two would have huge economic benefits for the entire region. To get there, Atlantic Canada needs a platoon of executives that can propel the industry forward.