Sheila Singh
Professor, Founder - McMaster University, Empirica Therapeutics
Part of the Hamilton’s Emerging Life Sciences Sector

Commercialization in Hamilton’s Health Sciences Sector

Takeaways

  1. Canada’s funding environment has helped produce incredibly innovative scientists and researchers who know how to prioritize commercialization.
  2. Canadian scientists are well-versed in multidisciplinary collaboration and using teamwork to overcome geographical obstacles to research.
  3. Hamilton is home to Canada’s key companies, organizations, and academic institutions in the life sciences, making the city rife with the right talent.

Action

Hamilton hosts a variety of experts and specialists in many up-and-coming fields in the life sciences. The convergence of these scientists in one city has made Hamilton a hotbed for key innovations, spurred on by an incredible support system and a constant supply of high-quality talent.


Can you tell us more about Empirica Therapeutics? 

I am a pediatric neurosurgeon and also a scientist. I have been running a basic and translational research program focused on the study of brain cancer since 2007 when I joined McMaster University. My basic science lab program had the fortune of being well funded and has been thriving for years, particularly through multidisciplinary collaborations with other scientists throughout Canada, especially my partners in discovery at the University of Toronto. Together we built a collaborative and translational brain cancer research program. Through that research program, we built a beautiful discovery engine that is now a translational pipeline because we need deep, foundational, and basic science discoveries about brain cancer before figuring out ways to develop new therapies. 

From that collaborative effort sprung the opportunity to commercialize one of our newly discovered therapeutics. We had a lot of help from McMaster University and in particular, the McMaster Industry Liaison Office (MILO), which helped us patent our discoveries and develop strategies for introducing those patents to commercial partners. MILO helped us to introduce our intellectual property (IP) to industry partners. These industry partners were super interested when they saw the amazing pipeline we had built and they realized that both the foundational discovery we made and the pipeline itself will provide access to brain cancer patients. They recognized a huge wealth of strength here at McMaster University and those industry partners became our long-term partners as we spun out Empirica Therapeutics from our research program. That company was recently acquired by a very large American partner. Together, we are working to develop new therapies for brain cancer one step closer to patients because now we are actively commercializing some of our basic discoveries.

What makes Canada a force in health research and a great destination for FDI in the health sciences sector? 

That is an excellent question. Canada has a large contingent of very well-trained, educated, and innovative scientists. In a way, our funding environment and geography force us to be more innovative and creative than some of our American partners.

“Canadian scientists have smaller pots of money available to us so we have to be more innovative to attract funding to our research than in the US.”

Canadian scientists have smaller pots of money available to us so we have to be more innovative to attract funding to our research than in the US where larger resources are available to more people. 

In terms of our geography, we are such a large country with such a low population density and yet, science these days is a team sport and Canadian scientists have mastered the skill of reaching out over very long distances. Ironically, many of the skills that have been important to us during COVID-19 such as virtual communication has already been mastered by many Canadians through the art of dealing with team science over large distances. The multidisciplinary collaboration that Canadian scientists engage in to overcome our geographic distances has been a huge benefit to the sciences.

“In stem cell research, Canadians have cornered the market on huge and seminal discoveries.”

In addition, there are certain fields of science where seminal Canadian discoveries have propelled us forward to become leaders internationally. An example of that is stem cell research. In stem cell research, Canadians have cornered the market on huge and seminal discoveries. 

What are the competitive advantages of Hamilton’s health sciences sector?

In my previous answer, I told you about what distinguishes Canada on a global landscape. We are fortunate at McMaster University to be the home of a lot of those skill sets. We have a very differentiated set of skills in Hamilton that have poised us for success in the biomedical and biotechnology sector.

There are a few fields where great discoveries are emerging from McMaster right now and one is in the area of radiochemistry. We are the only university in Canada to have a nuclear reactor on campus. In fact, we make a lot of the radioisotopes needed for cardiac studies, for when patients get a cardiac scan such as a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

That has provided a huge opportunity to develop a whole new segment for commercialization: the development of molecular probes. 

Another area is immuno-oncology, which has become a very hot avenue these days to pursue in terms of new cures for cancer. We are really lucky here at McMaster to have made some big discoveries in immunology that have led to the development of potential new immunotherapies for cancer. We seem to have cornered the market on that as well because a lot of the discoveries made at McMaster have turned into companies that are based at the McMaster Innovation Park. A lot of those companies have a focus on cell therapies or immunotherapies. That is another area where Hamilton is poised to build on existing strengths.

What supports exist in Hamilton to drive the commercialization of life science research? 

There are many organizations within Ontario and the area around Hamilton that are extremely supportive of scientific entrepreneurship. They are extremely supportive of academics who have made great discoveries that could be translated into future cures for disease. Some of those organizations include the Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBIO), a group that really promotes small startup companies and helps form partnerships between industry and scientists, giving them a room in which to have dialogue. There is also the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), which is very supportive particularly with respect to the strength that McMaster exhibits in cell therapies and immunotherapies. They have honed in on the fact that Hamilton and Canada in general are poised to make discoveries in that area because of the strength of our science, and they want to be ready to build that bridge for us. 

Finally, the organization that was key to the success of my own company, Empirica Therapeutics, was the Centre for the Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics (CCAB).


What is being done to train, attract, and retain top talent in Hamilton? 

There are multiple answers to that question. A multipronged approach is what is really going to work for training and retaining excellent talents in the field of biotechnology and health discovery. The good news is that the scientists who made seminal discoveries and founded companies currently in the MIP are here training scientists at McMaster University. 

The second important thing is creating bodies and institutions within the university that actually promote scientific entrepreneurship. For example, the department that I am cross-appointed to is the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences. This is a very forward-thinking department because they have created a branch of their program called Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization (BDC). They developed this undergraduate program to train students to think about finding paths to develop their discoveries to bring them to patients. Students can now have a structured education in that regard.


What would you pitch in 30 seconds to foreign investors as to why Hamilton’s health sciences sector is worth looking into?

The City of Hamilton is home to both Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University, both of which have a rich history of discovery in medicine and the health sciences. As we build on that history of discovery, we find ourselves in a position of great strength in areas of medicine that nowhere in the world does as well as McMaster does, particularly in clinical epidemiology, evidence-based medicine, immuno-oncology, and radiochemistry. These are all specific differentiating expertise you will find here in Hamilton, in our very vibrant, new community of scientific entrepreneurs. I welcome any investors to come and take a look at the world-class science being done here and the incredible innovation being applied to translating those discoveries to patients.

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Sheila Singh
Professor, Founder - McMaster University, Empirica Therapeutics

Bio: Sheila Singh is a Professor at McMaster University’s Department of Surgery, Division of Neurosurgery and Founder of Empirica Therapeutics. Her primary research interests lie in the application of a developmental neurobiology approach to the study of human brain tumours. She is a pediatric neurosurgeon and studies three different types of tumours: glioblastoma, medulloblastoma, and brain metastases. 

 

Organization Profile: McMaster University is a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario. It is well-known for its innovation park, the McMaster Innovation Park (MIP), which hosts companies such as Empirica Therapeutics. The company developed a powerful integrative multi-omics platform and discovered novel brain tumour targets. In 2020, the company was acquired by Century Therapeutics.