To learn more about the commercialization of life sciences in Toronto, I sat down with U of T Immunology alumnus, Dr. Patrycja Thompson, to discuss her role as Manager of Technology Sourcing and Evaluation at the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). Below, Dr. Thompson discusses her career trajectory, job responsibilities, and the role of CCRM in Toronto’s growing status as a world leader in biotech and biomedical innovations.
The past decade has seen a shift in the character of academic research. Particularly in the US, the rise of venture capital, start-ups, and patents has spurred universities to offer entrepreneurship workshops and incubator programs that create a smoother path for the commercialization of novel biomedical therapies. Now, Canada is following suit, as universities start innovation programs (e.g. Ryerson University’s business incubator DMZ, Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, McMaster University’s The Forge, etc.) and the federal government invests $125 million into its Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy.
No longer is basic research done for curiosity’s sake alone. Even in grant applications, there is an increased focus on the translatability of the science to biotechnology and medicine. The preference for quick-turnaround, clinical trial-ready research follows hefty federal research funding cuts in both Canada and the US. Basic science, which traditionally relies on government funding, was particularly affected by these cuts. For universities, this push for translational research and the licensing of intellectual property (IP) is an opportunity for additional revenue stream. From the academic researcher’s perspective, the trend has been met with mixed reviews. Some lament the decreased interest in basic research, which while riskier could lead to larger payoffs, particularly to the translational world. Others applaud the increased recognition of technology transfer and entrepreneurship in scientific research and encourage the incorporation of patents into tenure and promotion reviews.
That’s where organizations like the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) come in. CCRM aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry, and help scientists move their bench work to the clinic. Specifically, CCRM helps scientists overcome two bottlenecks in the commercialization of new therapies: limited funding and access to centralized research infrastructure. Each university typically has its own Technology Transfer Office (TTO), which helps guide an academic researcher to commercialize and protect their IP through the patent application process. Organizations outside the university, such as CCRM, take this to the next step by bringing the product in-house for further development and connecting the researcher with industry partners interested in supporting or promoting the product. This option can be particularly appealing to scientists who want to start their own companies or would like to expand their IP beyond the university’s scope.
As CCRM’s manager of technology sourcing and evaluation, Dr. Patrycja Thompson’s role is to find new academic technologies with the potential to become therapies and to act as a liaison between academic researchers and industry partners. She scouts out new discoveries, scours through the latest literature, and develops close relationships with researchers and TTOs in the Greater Toronto Area. Given the push towards more translational research in academia, Thompson encourages researchers to license their technologies to CCRM. She explains that CCRM can help researchers get their discoveries to the clinic and accelerate the development of therapies.
After completing her PhD in Immunology in 2015 in Dr. Juan Carlos Zuniga-Pflucker’s laboratory at the University of Toronto, Thompson landed a position at the Strategic Research Programs at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, followed by her current position at the CCRM. Thompson credits her degree in immunology and strong scientific background in helping her excel in her role. “Having a strong science background definitely helps,” she explains, “Because if you think about it, I have to know the science. If I see someone’s primary paper, I have to be able to understand and analyze it. I have to be able to tell whether [it] is something viable or not.”
In essence, her role is about fostering relationships with clients and helping scientists take their research beyond the lab. For Thompson, this means that every day is different. Some days involve weekly meetings, such as operations meetings and progress updates on company ideation or currently incubated companies within CCRM. Other days may involve a patent and market analysis on a new technology, or providing input on a start-up requesting financial investment from CCRM. For Thompson, the best part about her job is that she is exposed to so many different things: “it’s not just the science, but also the market, patentability, and investment.”
While academic researchers may struggle with funding, grant writing, and publications, Thompson’s challenges at her work are more interpersonal. “My biggest challenge definitely is engaging some of the academics,” she says, “and I think it’s because a lot of academics think, ‘I don’t have time to be involved in this newly created company. I have my academic position and that has taken up more than enough of my time.’ To explain that their involvement doesn’t have to be as a CEO of a company by any means – it could be acting as a Scientific Advisor – is definitely a challenge.” Additional challenges include persuading CCRM’s partners to consider them as an industry liaison for their technology and finding external investment to push the company forward can also be challenging.
However, it seems the push for translational research is benefitting the CCRM. “We’re starting to see academics who are more inclined to want to commercialize their therapy—maybe not necessarily commercialize it in terms of creating a company, but definitely getting it into a clinical trial,” Thompson explains. One of CCRM’s main focuses is around stem cell-based therapies — a strategic move that plays on Toronto’s strength, given that the cells were discovered here. Indeed, there is a demand to build partnerships with laboratories working in this field, particularly those developing genetic and engineering tools for regenerative medicine.
But at the end of the day, how does Canada match up to its Southern neighbor in the innovations arms race? Given her close relationship with industry partners, subscription to the latest scientific innovations in Toronto, and vicinity to the city’s leading AI research institutes and start-ups, it’s no surprise that Thompson has much to say about Toronto’s up and coming status as a global innovation hub. Citing our breakthrough discoveries in the fields of genetics and immunology, as well as strong engineering research programs, Thompson believes that Toronto has what it takes to match Silicon Valley in terms of AI research and innovation. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement. “What has to happen more is this interdisciplinary linking,” she asserts, “and I think with AI, it’ll be more pronounced, because now you can use AI to develop better diagnostic tools and screening approaches.”
Finally, when asked what advice she can offer to graduate students seeking a similar non-academic career path, Thompson encourages us to not be afraid to try new things. “Definitely try to reach out. It takes guts to [cold-call someone on LinkedIn], but once you do it a few times, it gets easy,” she advises, “Another way to jump into industry is to get an internship, which you should get paid for; never agree to do it for free.” She also advises students to engage in teaching assistantships and community outreach as methods of learning how to translate complicated science into more easily digestible bits.
Interested in learning more about commercialization and translational research? Find out more about the CCRM and their initiatives here: https://www.ccrm.ca
And be sure to check out our upcoming LSCDS Mini-Networking Series for a chance to meet key industry professionals: https://lscds.org/events/mini-networking-series/
Disclaimer: Dr. Patrycja Thompson’s views and opinions are her own and do not represent CCRM’s views and opinions.