Cold-FX was her baby, but Dr. Jacqueline Shan has a new baby now – developing anti-aging products for Canada’s baby boomers.
As the co-founder and former chief scientific officer of Afexa Life Sciences Inc., Dr. Shan led the development of the highly popular ginseng-based cold and flu remedy, but that relationship ended when Afexa was acquired by Valeant Pharmaceuticals in 2011. Now she’s the founder and chief scientific officer of Afinix Life Sciences Inc., an Edmonton-based private company, launched in 2012 with the help of $1.5-million from AVAC Ltd., a private Alberta-based investment company focused on early-stage commercial ventures.
Marketing under the Afinity brand, Dr. Shan, 50, continues her passion for developing natural health products, this time focused on the growing health issues of older consumers. Its line-up includes a series of remedies with Omega-3s for improving cardiovascular, memory or cognitive health as well as for rheumatoid arthritis and general well-being.
With only eight employees and no revenue figures yet, Afinix is relatively small, compared to annual revenues of nearly $50-million for her first company, but Dr. Shan says she’s had a positive response from the public and potential retailers. Currently available online, she expects the products to be in stores by the end of this year or early 2014.
Born in China in a village called Jiujiang during the Cultural Revolution, and fascinated with the healing powers of herbal medicines from childhood, Dr. Shan came to Canada in 1987. She holds a PhD in physiology from University of Alberta and Doctorate of Science in pharmacology from Peking Union Medical College.
Q: What’s different about Afinix from your first company?
A: The mission of the new company is fundamentally the same. I want to continue my dream to pursue research and development and the commercialization of evidence-based natural health products. That’s my passion and what I’ve been trained for. What’s different are the products. We’re focused on anti-aging products to meet the growing health needs of the aging population. We’re also in the research and development stage for products for women’s health. This time around it’s more personal because I’m going through aging – like many other women facing menopause and pre-menopause. When it becomes personal, it really hits me because I need something myself to help manage. We’re focusing on men’s health as well and combating physical fatigue. We hope to be able to launch those products in the future.
Q: In Canada or globally?
A: I’d love to see the products go global in the long run, however Canada is our home base so we’d like to be successful here first. We’re exploring the international market. Dealing with an aging population and the need for related health products are global needs.
Q: How did it feel, having to leave Afexa?
A: It was not my personal decision to leave. It’s a public company. When a public company does an acquisition, that is their normal procedure. When it first happens to you, it hits you. There are mixed feelings. It’s like your baby leaving you so it was pretty hard and pretty sad, but you get over it eventually. I don’t have any continuing business relationship with Cold-FX, but I am very passionate about what we created and proud of it. I will continue to be a Cold-FX fan.
Q: COLD FX faced legal challenges about its scientific basis. Has this made you more cautious the second time around?
A: Cold-FX is probably the most researched and studied product in the natural health industry. That’s recognized. The paper was published. You can’t deny the research. But absolutely you need to follow the regulations and have all products approved by Health Canada. Once you have the experience, you know to clear the way right at the starting gate. Everything we do at Afinix will be guided by the regulation guidelines, whether it’s product development or marketing and messaging. But I like to go beyond just the basic requirements by Health Canada with quality, purity and all those things.
Q: What else have you learned from Afexa that you’ll apply to Afinix?
A: I’ve learned to be patient. Sometimes, especially in an entrepreneur driven business, you want something so badly when you’re building a new product or expanding into a new marketplace, you can be driven by your passion to see what you want to see. But risk management is a huge part of managing your business. That includes to be patient.
So don’t do things prematurely. It’s easy to say that in hindsight, but not when you’re in the middle of something. That comes with experience.
Make sure you understand or try to understand your blind spot. That’s so important. What’s scared me most in business from the beginning were the things I wasn’t aware of or didn’t know – that’s your what your blind spot is.
Q: What’s your blind spot?
A: Before I started my first company, I spent the majority of my life in the lab working with scientists. I didn’t have any experience with business. In 20 years I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still a scientist first. Everything is logic. You try to figure out the logic of everything.
But you’ve got to be open minded and learn from other people. You need to be able to listen, and not just to praise. You need people who will say no to you, and warn you to be cautious. That’s very valuable and probably the biggest learning curve for myself.
Q: The launch of Afinix was made possible by $1.5-million from AVAC Ltd. What was your strategy for getting investment?
A: The first investment for Cold-FX was also from AVAC, an Alberta-based company. We were the first company to pay it back in full – the principal and then they have a criteria of how much you have to pay back. So we had a good track record which we leveraged.
We’re lucky in Alberta that we have a fertile environment to support entrepreneurs and the life science industry. AVAC invests in startups and technology-based companies. You go through a very stringent due diligence process before they approve that investment. We also have to take a risk ourselves. You have to invest your own money and it has to least be matching. That’s the minimum.
Q: How do you encourage innovation?
A: I’m always fascinated by the term innovation. There’s so much talk about it. To me, innovation is really about making changes to add value, especially when it’s technology driven. It’s also a cultural thing. From the top to the bottom, you need to have a mindset for that culture of innovation. I’m a scientist and a dreamer. You need that to be innovative and creative.
Q: You launched online first. Why?
A: We’re fascinated about today’s e-commerce and social media because of the buzz you can generate. I felt we shouldn’t miss that. We’re consumer house products and we can educate the consumer through social media.
But I’m not sure that the web store is the best way for people to actually buy the product. That’s why we are quickly moving into phase two to expand into mass retail. But social media is great for creating the buzz and the getting the brand name out to start. It allows us to build the foundation. When you go into retail, they love to see that you already have a buzz around the products
Q: What’s your advice for Canadian entrepreneurs?
A: Have a sound business plan to give yourself a clear vision and execution plan. When I was young, I didn’t believe that much. I thought, you could just often go with your instinct. But you learn. If you get lost, you can go back to the original plan. Of course, it’s going to change and you can modify it, but have that mindset and discipline from the start.
Spend some time and money to get expert help and the right business advisers. To find them, get recommendations. A lot of people are willing to give time and advice for free. I do. It’s important to pass on your experience to other entrepreneurs. There are a lot of organizations that can help as well, whether through information sharing, seminars, lectures or individuals. Entrepreneurs should just reach out and ask. If they can’t help, they will know where to point you.
In absolutely everything you build, don’t forget the needs of your consumer. It’s very easy to lose sight when you are immersed in the day to day details of the business. When growing your business, get the best people you can on your team. It’s not possible to do it all yourself because eventually you’re going to break. I almost broke myself.
Q: How so?
A: I remember when Cold-FX reached a tipping point in the early days – we grew pretty fast...in one year, business grew seven times – then all of a sudden, you’re facing that you don’t have enough resources. If you’re trying to do everything yourself, the business can suffer. Now I see in hindsight, you can prepare for that. When there’s a demand out there, it’s a good thing, but sometimes if you’re going too fast, you can break your neck. But if you’re prepared and have the right team, you’ll have a backup plan.
You sacrifice a lot by trying to do everything yourself. I personally suffered a great deal – my health and my family. When I started my first company, my two boys were very young. I didn’t spend much time with my kids when they were little. My parents came from China to help me out. Now my boys are 11 and 15. More and more I value family and make sure that I’m part of their lives. I’m managing okay. I have a good support system and a very supportive husband. Doing it again, I work smarter.