winning teams with large cheques

Left to right: Akshita Vincent (PRiME); Michael Valic (Twenty-nine Therapeutics); Yosuke Niibori, Yewon Kim and Abena Saka (Re:Pair Genomics); Allison Brown (Medicine by Design) and Molly Shoichet (PRiME).

A rare form of cancer, peritoneal carcinomatosis, occurs when advanced cancer spreads to affect the thin membrane surrounding abdominal organs. This can happen in ovarian, pancreatic, gastric, colon and rectal cancers. It is difficult to treat, with few options. Patients with peritoneal carcinomatosis often have lengthy surgeries and systemic treatments, but recurrence rates are high and overall survival rates are poor.

A University Health Network (UHN) prospective venture, Twenty-nine Therapeutics, proposes a novel way to use Copper-67 (Cu-67) in radiation therapy, which is typically not used to treat peritoneal carcinomatosis. This method would also explore a very precise treatment delivery system leveraging nanoparticles — microscopic particles with various therapeutic applications including carrying drug therapies or other materials throughout the body.

Two teams receive research funding

Pitch presenter

Pitch presenter Michael Valic, Twenty-nine Therapeutics

Team Twenty-nine Therapeutics, in conjunction with UHN, are evaluating the prospect of formulating a UHN venture based on this technology. The $25,000 received in research funding as the top team at the Building a Biotech Venture Pitch Competition on March 27 aids in increasing the technology readiness level of the platform technology

“The vision for Twenty-nine Therapeutics is to transform care for patients affected by peritoneal metastasis using innovations in nanomedicine paired with radiopharmaceutical applications of copper,” says Michael Valic from the Twenty-nine Therapeutics team. “Various metal-based nanoparticles such as zinc and copper can be used in fighting cancer while also minimizing toxicity to normal cells. We aim to explore the therapeutic effects of two theranostic isotopes of copper and arm clinicians with additional treatment options for this difficult to treat form of cancer.”

Valic, a PhD student, delivered the pitch on behalf on Twenty-nine Therapeutics and leads the scientific team. Valic works in the laboratory of Gang Zheng, the scientific co-founder of UHN company Nanogenix, which is focused on novel photo-immune therapy mechanisms for cancer. Zheng is a renowned cancer researcher in nanomedicine technologies and is also a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, UHN.

pitch presenter

Pitch presenter Swapna Prakash, Re:Pair Genomics

The second-place team, Re:Pair Genomics, was awarded $10,000 in funding. The team is developing AI software to design compact “GPS DNAs,” which would have the ability to target cells and tissues and reduce off-target effects in gene therapy. The team says their technology could improve safety and product success in the clinic, as well as drastically reduce the time needed to administer a gene therapy.

The Re:Pair Genomics pitch was delivered by Swapna Prakash, a law student at U of T. The team also includes Yosuke Niibori, post-doctoral research associate, and Shiron Lee, who completed a master’s degree, both from professor David Hampson’s lab at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at U of T. Lee now works in the U.S. Luca Hategan, a master’s student at assistant professor Brandon Walter’s lab at U of T Mississauga’s Department of Cell and Systems Biology, is the fourth member of the team.

The larger Re:Pair Genomics team also includes fourth year undergraduate students Yewon Kim, business development representative, and Abena Saka, business development assistant.

Supporting researchers across disciplines

The Building a Biotech Venture Program is now in its fourth year. It’s a unique entrepreneurship program for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, research/scientific associates, scientists and clinicians at the University of Toronto (U of T) and its affiliated hospitals.

The program is tailored to individuals who are working in regenerative or precision medicine, cutting-edge fields that often overlap. The prospective ventures generally focus either on regenerating and repairing the body with stem cells and other living therapies (regenerative medicine) and/or the personalization of preventions and treatments for individual patients (precision medicine).

Prior to the pitch competition, participants attend a series of workshops and mentorship sessions that guide them through the business aspects of shaping their venture idea. Topics include developing a business canvas and navigating intellectual property (IP), regulatory considerations and early-stage investment.

Past teams have continued to develop their ventures in many ways including by filing intellectual property, participating in other pitch competitions and joining venture accelerators both in Canada and the U.S.

“The Building a Biotech Venture Program showcases the incredible talent of our trainees, scientists and clinicians in translating what they have discovered in the lab into regenerative medicine innovations that are laying the groundwork for new companies and products,” says Allison Brown, executive director at Medicine by Design, a regenerative medicine research initiative at U of T and its affiliated hospitals. “It gives participants a foundation in business and entrepreneurial concepts in the life sciences and is a catalyst for advancing tangible innovations that will eventually benefit patients.”

Medicine by Design leads the Building a Biotech Venture program and provides the first-place award. A second partner in the program, the Health Innovation Hub (H2i), leads mentorship of the teams via their vast network of experienced entrepreneurs.

H2i is an on-campus incubator that has supported more than 750 ventures, generating over $420 million, at U of T since 2014. Many past participants of the Building a Biotech Venture program remain a part of H2i, says Paul Santerre, who is the director of H2i at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a professor, Faculty of Dentistry and the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, U of T.

“We have continued to help the early stage ventures to keep growing their business ideas, of which many have had notable successes, such as past teams going on to win U of T’s Desjardins Startup Prize, attracting multi-million dollar investment, and others. We’re excited to see what the future brings for all the teams, and for the patients that will be beneficiaries of their technologies,” says Santerre.

The program is also supported by the Precision Medicine Initiative (PRiME) at U of T, which provides the second-place award.

Innovation experts selected the winners

Panel of judges

Left to right: Judges Suman Rao, Robin Quirk, Mathew Platt and Ella Korets-Smith.

Four judges with a range of experience in areas like company creation and incubation, business development and investment listened to the pitches and determined the winner based on factors like the delivery of the pitch presentation, the strength of the venture concept, the market need, and how well the teams integrated the program learnings.

The judges included Ella Korets-Smith, chief strategy officer and co-founder at Virica Biotech, Mathew Platt, head of venture recruitment at Creative Destruction Lab, Robin Quirk, vice president technology sourcing & venture development at CCRM and Suman Rao, senior associate at Lumira Ventures.

“The quality of the pitches we saw is a testament to the teams’ high level of preparedness and commitment. I was impressed to see a range of technologies that could one day have an impact on diseases like cancer and sepsis or improve the effectiveness of cell and gene therapies. I encourage each team to keep building and refining their venture and I’m excited to see where they go in the future,” Korets-Smith says.