Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Scientist and co-founder of biotech company Amatheraca, Dr. Molly Shoichet in Toronto on Feb. 19, 2021.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

One of Canada’s most celebrated scientists, Molly Shoichet, is stepping up plans to take a key discovery out of her lab and into the marketplace.

On Monday, AmacaThera Inc., the third startup spun out of Dr. Shoichet’s University of Toronto lab, is announcing it has raised $10.3-million from investors in Canada, the United States and Europe to take its product – an injectable gel that can improve postsurgery pain treatment – into human safety trials this year.

Dr. Shoichet is chief science officer, while her former postdoctoral research student and co-founder, Michael Cooke, is chief executive officer.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Shoichet holds the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and was Ontario’s first chief scientist. She has won two of Canada’s top science prizes– the $1-million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in 2020 and the Killam Prize for engineering in 2017.

“She’s the reason we did the deal,” said Peter van der Velden, managing general partner with Toronto’s Lumira Ventures, which led the financing, backed by Viva BioInnovator, BDC Capital Women in Technology Venture Fund, Inveready, MBX Capital, CR Capital Management, StandUp Ventures and MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund.

“The work out of that lab is truly transformative and she’s a leader in the space. We thought there was an opportunity to build an interesting platform company based on her core technology.”

Dr. Shoichet’s lab uses materials called hydrogels to surround and protect drugs or stem cells when injected in the body, enabling them time to do their job. Work from her lab has led to applications to treat cancer, strokes and blindness.

AmacaThera’s core material is an invention licensed from the lab that combines hyaluronic acid, commonly used in anti-wrinkle cosmetics, and methyl cellulose, which turns into a gel when heated. On its own, methyl cellulose gels at 90 C; combined with the acid, it does so at body temperature, making it useable in humans.

When existing drugs are mixed into the concoction, “we can control how quickly they are released” in the body, Dr. Shoichet said. “I like to think of us as the FedEx of cells and drug delivery. FedEx provides the packaging and figures out how to get what’s inside where and when it needs to be there.”

AmacaThera’s initial target is postoperative pain relief. Doctors typically use local anesthetics such as bupivacaine for surgeries. But the drugs wear off in 12 to 18 hours, at which point opioids are prescribed for pain relief. Studies have shown that leads to millions of cases of opioid dependency annually.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Shoichet and Mr. Cooke believe that if their hydrogel can hold and gradually release a larger dose of the anesthetic over three days, it can get postsurgical patients to the point where they don’t need opioids. That could improve pain management, cut hospital stays and reduce opioid addictions. “The economic effect [would be] huge, and on top of that there’s the benefit to the patients and society,” Mr. Cooke said.

Hance Clarke, an anesthesiologist who directs pain services at Toronto General Hospital, said a product for sale in the United States called Exparel can extend the anesthetic effect to 24 hours.

“There’s no doubt this would be a significant breakthrough if [AmacaThera] could come up with a therapeutic option” lasting 72 hours after surgery. “If they can get this across the finish line there’s certainly a home for this to land in clinical medicine.”

A growing number of research academics have warmed to the idea of commercializing their work in recent decades, though Canada has been slower to embrace the trend.

That was never the case for Toronto-born Dr. Shoichet, the daughter of two entrepreneurs, who worked early in her career at a U.S. biotech startup. She was keen to spin out inventions from her lab after starting at the University of Toronto in 1995, making her “an anomaly” at the time, she said.

She was concerned her graduate students were leaving for the U.S. “because there were very few opportunities here. So I became motivated to make a difference and help create more opportunities” in Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

The first startup spun out of her lab in 1998 was called BoneTec Corp. She sold her shares to co-founder John Davies three years later. In 2002, she founded MatRegen Corp. and served as president, raising more than $2-million before the company wound up in 2008.

By the time she and Mr. Cooke co-founded AmacaThera, in 2016, Dr. Shoichet had learned a few lessons as an entrepreneur: Keep early-stage commercial technology in an academic setting as long as necessary and “make your mistakes in as safe a place as possible.”

The company also needed a full-time CEO she could trust, she said. She couldn’t fill that job herself and also run a lab, but Mr. Cooke, who had joined her lab in 2008 while pursuing his PhD, was game.

AmacaThera, which raised US$1.8-million in seed funding in 2018, hopes to pass the safety trials and move to efficacy trials involving 100 postsurgical patients next year, Mr. Cooke said.

The hope is that the technology can eventually be used to deliver a range of drugs, providing greater benefits with its time-release properties. “We really like that approach,” said Michelle Scarborough, managing partner with the BDC fund. “It solves a really big problem with a line of sight to commercial potential.”

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies