ONESTART Boosts Healthcare Team’s Prospects
February 11th, 2016
A Halifax-based team that’s developing a treatment for a rare childhood blindness is hoping an international accelerator will help them get their technology to the global market.
Members of a research team based at Dalhousie University, have made it into OneStart, a program which claims to be the world’s largest life sciences and healthcare startup accelerator.
From Feb. 19-20, Gordon Simms and his colleagues Jeanne Egar and Mike Ngo will take part in the OneStart bootcamp for semi-finalists in San Francisco.
Each team will then be assigned industry mentors to work with on developing their business. Mentors are from leading pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Roche.
If Simms and his team win at the finals in May, they could receive up to $150,000 in funding.
Simms said the Dalhousie-based team has come up with the first ever treatment for FEVR, an inherited blinding disorder known as familial exudative vitreoretinopathy.
“Babies with FEVR have genes that prevent the healthy formation of blood vessels in their eyes,” said Simms.
“Our team has created new drugs that promote healthy blood vessel formation in the eyes and decrease the risk of blindness.”
The Dalhousie team is one of 40 chosen from the Americas. The other five Canadian semi-finalists are all from Ontario.
Simms said Dalhousie’s research into FEVR began in 2011 when Genome Canada funded Ignite Nova Scotia, a $4.9 million, three-year project that invested in treatments for orphan diseases. (An orphan disease is a rare disease. Most orphan diseases are genetic.)
The funding allowed project leader Dr. Christopher McMaster, the head of Dalhousie’s Department of Pharmacology, and pediatric ophthalmology specialist Dr. Johane Robitaille, to undertake the initial research.
The current team also includes six researchers.
Halifax is the regional hub for medical innovation. Simms said the sector’s support network is often admired and envied by outsiders.
The network includes BioNova, the industry association for the province’s biotechnology and life sciences companies, and Innovacorp, the group that funds and grows early-stage startups.
Nonetheless, getting healthcare technologies to market is especially challenging as medical innovations must pass through a high number of tests and safety checks.
Simms said the new company, tentatively called NovaSight, will need to raise around $2 million in its next round of financing. It will take an additional $1 million to complete the first round of clinical trials.
The U.S., along with Canada, is the team’s first target market.
“Money’s important,” said Simms, who is project lead on chemistry and pharmacology and handles much of the business development.
“It always takes funds to get a venture like this going. But being a semi-finalist at OneStart allows us to get business development advice from big pharmaceutical companies.
“The mentoring experience can’t be understated.”
Simms has been involved in various healthcare research projects. In 2008, he began a PhD at Dalhousie in medicinal chemistry with researcher and entrepreneur, Dr. Donald Weaver. Weaver’s research led to a patent for a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.
After completing his PhD in 2015, Simms began a post-doctoral fellowship in pharmacology with his current partner Dr. McMaster, where he is a research scientist and business development liaison with DeNovaMed.
DeNovaMed is a Halifax pharmaceutical company that specializes in developing therapeutic approaches to combat bacterial superbug infections.
McMaster and Weaver were among DenovaMed’s co-founders.
For Simms the humanitarian nature of the work is central.
“To give someone vision for the rest of their life is so important,” he said of FEVR. “FEVR affects a small portion of the population, but this treatment could lead to other treatments for other retinal diseases.
‘This is a starting point for us. We’re going to pursue other diseases as well. More broadly, the life sciences sector has the potential to give the economy a shot in the arm.”