Biotechnology Focus

Biotechnology Focus February 2013

Biotechnology Focus is Canada's leading authority on Canada's life science news. From biopharma and healthcare to ag-bio and clean tech, our readership includes life science professionals, C-level executives and researchers.

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Executive Profile F rom industrial to pharmaceutical applications, the next generation of protein engineering approaches are helping researchers across the globe overcome obstacles and limitations en route to creating more effective therapeutics. Such is the case with Vancouver's Zymeworks, an emerging biotherapeutics company that is earning accolades for its groundbreaking work in designing novel antibodies to treat cancer, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases. In 2012, Zymeworks made waves after closing an $11 million round of financing, as well as simultaneously announcing a major R&D milestone in the company's collaboration with Merck in a broader deal valued at over $187 million. These are just two of the most recent achievements in a long list of accomplishments. Steering the company to success is its president and CEO Dr. Ali Tehrani, who co-founded the company in 2003 while completing his graduate studies at the University of British Columbia. Under his direction Zymeworks has gone from a small start-up to a major player in both the fields of computational biotechnology and next-generation protein therapeutic design. Tehrani's formula for success includes taking a collaborative and global approach to drug development. "This is not about building an empire and becoming an emperor, this is about a team," says Tehrani. "From day one, I've said that our objective at Zymeworks was not just to be competitive or productive locally, say within Vancouver or even in British Columbia or Canada. We wanted to be competitive and recognized globally. To do that, you need a world-class team." For a team to be successful, it needs a strong leader and visionary. Tehrani has proven himself to be just such a leader, and the driving force behind the company. With both a BA and MA degree in Biochemistry, and a doctorate in Microbiology and Immunology, Tehrani is a scientist turned businessman. The transition occurred while Tehrani was in grad school at the University of British Columbia where he realized that his passion and strengths lay not in working behind the bench, but in helping other scientists see that their research had commercial potential. "What I realized was that I could translate and communicate the language of science for those who were unable to," says Tehrani. "I was able to dream for those who were excellent at doing the science but did not know how to build a business around their inventions." Before starting Zymeworks, Tehrani also co-founded the Student Biotechnology Network to help expose students to opportunities in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors, and to help them see how they could advance their careers after graduation. Eleven years later, the network is still running strong. The network was also the forum where Tehrani first showed the biotech industry what he was capable of doing. "In many respects that experience enabled a small group of us to start a company but without it being a company," says Tehrani. "We had to learn how to team build, how to put events together, how to communicate, how to organize, how to think, how to strategize and apply those skills towards creating something that people got really excited about. Dreaming big and helping lead a small team that created something that is still in existence almost 11 years after the fact allowed the world to see some of my strengths and say 'You know, I think he might be able to do more.' " In 2003 that 'something more' led to Ali Tehrani and Anthony Fejes starting Zymeworks, with the support and mentorship of angel investors Haig Ferris, Nick Bedford, and Andrew Wright, who remain involved with the company to this day. After its inception, one of the first major milestones for the company came in late 2007, with an early full-release of its proprietary molecular simulation program ZymeCAD™: Zymeworks' Computer Assisted Design suite. Developing a world-class, in-house computer-modeling program for rational drug design that caught the attention of the pharmaceutical industry was simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time, says Tehrani. "When we started Zymeworks, the raw computational horsepower had finally come together and today, as is evident from our iPhones and all the powerful machines that we have around us, it's a commodity," explains Tehrani. "Zymeworks is standing on the shoulders of giants. The notion of rational drug design was thought of way before us, and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, at the intersection of the right advances in computing and biology, with the right ideas and the passion to bring it to fruition." Using ZymeCAD™, the company creates an in silico experimental environment where structural biologists, biochemists and other protein engineers can propose and explore modifications to proteins. At Zymeworks, these modifications have related to new and improved characteristics for antibody-based therapeutics, including better drug-like properties, greater stability and most importantly, new functionalities such as the ability to attack multiple disease targets simultaneously. This computational environment for drug design and its applications opened up all kinds of possibilities for Zymeworks, in par- "Antibodies as part of the drug design world, as part of the pharmaceutical world, represent an exciting opportunity, you can be much more creative with the business models that you can bring to the table there." February 2013 BIOTECHNOLOGY FOCUS 13

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