Meet the Startup Looking to Make Its Mark in Biotechnology
[Update: May 10th – On top of Mycodev’s 2016 KIRA Award for Innovative New Product, David Brown is among 2017’s recipients of the Governor General Innovation Awards. This post originally appeared in early 2016, it is being republished as part of New Brunswick Innovation Week]
Mycodev Group is a biotechnology company focused on bringing to market a versatile pharmaceutical ingredient called chitosan. CTO David Brown says his company takes a novel approach to producing its chitosan — it comes entirely from fungus.
Similar to how beer is brewed, Mycodev grows large amounts of fungus via a submerged fermentation process. From there they extract chitosan, which is sold in powder form.
Brown co-founded Mycodev three years ago with his business partner, CEO Brennan Sisk. Both are New Brunswick natives and the duo is thrilled to be seeing entrepreneurial success in their home province.
ONB spoke to David Brown to learn more.
ONB: Let’s start with a bit more detail on chitosan. Exactly what applications does it have?
Brown: Chitosan is used in a wide range of applications such as cancer and genetic therapies, wound healing, contact lenses, and nasal sprays. We’re strictly an ingredient manufacturer and focus on having the highest purity chitosan on the market. One of the key benefits of our chitosan is that it’s a non-animal product. The majority of chitosan produced today still comes from crustacean shells like those of the shrimp and crab. There are inherent problems with this chitosan, such as the potential for shellfish allergens. There could also be issues with heavy metals commonly found in seafood like arsenic and mercury.
ONB: How did the idea come about?
Brown: I had just moved back to New Brunswick after graduating from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I first started thinking about chitosan out west as part of a science competition held by MIT. I learned about the chitosan market, what it’s used for, and issues surrounding today’s medical supply of it.
I knew fungus was another source but nobody had thought of large-scale fermentation of fungus for the purposes of chitosan extraction.
When I returned to New Brunswick I launched a bare bones, rather poorly designed website centered on my plan to produce this non-animal chitosan for medical tech and pharma. Within days—despite the site’s quality—several U.S. companies called to inquire about specifics and availability. There was strong market interest from day one as the industry seeks alternatives to crustacean chitosan.
ONB: Why launch in New Brunswick rather than out west?
Brown: Originally, I returned here for family reasons. Once I got started, however, I began seeing the benefits of launching in New Brunswick. I noted the speed with which you can get certain things done here as an entrepreneur. Due to the small size of the province, it’s an ‘everybody knows everybody’ type situation. Government, for example, moves fairly quickly on certain things. If we need to talk to someone at ONB or certain government departments, it gets done quickly. During my entrepreneurial stint out west, I found things took longer. It seemed like there was more red tape and longer waits; getting face time with people in government took a while.
I’ve also come to realize that New Brunswick is a good location for biotech in Canada. Most of our initial clients are in the New England area; Massachusetts is a notable biotech hub. There are a number of medical and pharma companies there so being in New Brunswick works well for us from a logistics perspective.
ONB: Let’s talk about early adopters. What work are they doing with your chitosan?
Brown: Without providing names I can say that we have clients (including one in New Brunswick) focused on cancer therapeutics, gene therapy, drug delivery, and interestingly, some making medical devices for wound care using chitosan to stop patient bleeding. Chitosan is a good haemostatic agent, so when it’s combined with other ingredients it can be put into a gel, foam or spray to be used on lacerations. It stops bleeding and forms a really strong clot within 30 seconds, sometimes faster.
This also has important implications for the military. It can be hours before a wounded soldier on the front-line can be flown back to a proper medical center, and in that time they could bleed out.
ONB: We’re always keen to discuss the ecosystem in New Brunswick that supports young up-and-coming businesses. What other partnerships have you forged?
Brown: That’s another benefit of operating in New Brunswick — the support partners. I’ll start with BioNB which is the industry group for biotech in the province. They have been a strong advocate for us and a huge help in getting us started.
I didn’t know anyone in the bio sector when I moved back. One of the first meetings I had was with Meaghan Seagrave, BioNB’s Executive Director. She knows everyone and can connect you to all the right people. She knows where all the available lab spaces are, the right professors at the Universities to speak to, etc. I was at a BioNB event when I met my co-founder, Brennan. I pitched my idea to a small crowd and he was in the audience.
We’ve also done a good portion of our research and development with CCNB at their Grand Falls campus. The Biorefinery Technology Scale-up Centre there is a huge resource for biotech companies and a big asset for the province. Without their support and abilities, we certainly wouldn’t be as far as we are today.
Then you have the universities, specifically the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in both Fredericton and Saint John, and the University of Moncton. We have worked with the chemistry departments at all of those institutions for testing our chitosan. UNB Fredericton actually does much of our routine weekly testing. Without those departments, we would be sending samples up to Ontario or into the U.S., which would be more costly and time-consuming.
Finally, I’d like to mention the NBIF. They were one of our first investors, and we were the first biotech company they invested in. Biotech isn’t a sector they claim to be experts in but they saw real potential in Mycodev and have been good partners.
ONB: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Brown: In the beginning, it was tough to convince people that the biotech sector is well-suited for the province. New Brunswick has a lot of resources that make it well-suited for the biotech industry and I think it’s a good fit for helping the province’s overall economic picture.
Bio is one of those sectors that stays put once it’s established since it requires heavy physical infrastructure. Other sectors are easier to move; they just require people, and in some cases those people can be found anywhere. Mycodev is a good example of what I’m talking about. We invested a lot in establishing our HQ in Fredericton, and it’s likely we will enjoy being here for a long time. Jobs in this field tend to be well-paying too so it could bring a lot of educated, intelligent people here.
BioNB continues to cheerlead for the industry and I think more people are coming around to the benefits. I’m quite happy that the province and the NBIF are increasingly interested in biotech.
ONB: Let’s conclude with your best advice for entrepreneurs?
Brown: A lot of people have great ideas but just sit on them, and that’s too bad. We’ve got innovative people here and if they just ran with their ideas I think we’d be surprised how many success stories we could have. I realize it’s a scary jump to make. It’s not easy to go from a steady full-time job to a startup with no security, but if you have a great idea, take the plunge.
Also, find good people to fill in your own knowledge gaps. My background was in science, so from the start, I knew I needed a partner with business acumen. Luckily I found Brennan when I got back to New Brunswick; he had the business experience the company needed.
When I speak to science students with entrepreneurial questions I tell them to focus on their idea and find a business partner. Scientists and engineers aren’t really business people, they need to find that business-oriented co-founder if they’re going to succeed at commercializing their ideas.
[Update: May 10th – David Brown is among 2017’s recipients of the Governor General Innovation Awards]
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