Skip to main content

Dr. Cal Stiller poses in his offices in a converted historic home in London, Ontario, Thursday, April 1, 2010.Dave Chidley for The Globe and Mail

Whenever people talk about Calvin Stiller, the same terms tend to crop up time and again. He's an "unusual mix," they say, a "rare breed," as though it were in his blood, his DNA, to achieve great things in both science and business - fields that often blend as well as oil and water.

But nothing in Dr. Stiller's Prairie roots predicted his success as the medical doctor and money man who would dramatically reshape Canada's research landscape. A transplant pioneer, professor and non-stop entrepreneur, Dr. Stiller has been the visionary behind two decades of initiatives designed to make the country a powerhouse of discovery and development.

"Cal never bought the old mantra that 'Canadians discover, Americans develop and Canada buys it back at inflated prices,' " says Henry Friesen, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and president of the Medical Research Council through the 1990s. The long list of examples stretches from Pablum to pacemakers, says Dr. Friesen, but Dr. Stiller "has been the voice and champion par excellence that we Canadians must do better."

He worked to create the Canadian Medical Discovery Fund, a mutual fund that has attracted 60,000 investors in homegrown R&D since its inception in the early 1990s. He helped to negotiate a deal to ensure that drug companies invest a percentage of Canadian sales into Canadian research. He founded the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario, co-founded the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research and served as chairman of Genome Canada, which backed big research projects with private and public funding. He is also one of the co-founders of the MaRS Discovery District, the not-for-profit corporation in Toronto that aims to commercialize publicly funded research.

"If you want to see the monuments to Cal Stiller," says Dr. Friesen, "it's like they said about Sir Christopher Wren: 'Look all around - they're everywhere.' "

It may be that experience, more than heredity, honed Dr. Stiller's unique talents. One of five children of a Pentecostal minister in tiny Naicam, east of Saskatoon, he was raised to believe that life is about doing for others. The only acceptable vocations were those that served people, Dr. Stiller recalls - "You could either be a minister, a teacher or a doctor." He was 11 when he decided. Watching his father battle kidney failure, the younger Stiller "worshipped" the doctor who treated his dad, who died a year later.

The family moved to the city and he, intent on going to medical school, studied hard and saved. It helped to be "a little entrepreneur at heart."

He opened a milk bar at school, selling day-old doughnuts and drinks. In charge of Saskatoon's longest paper route, he paid subcontractors (kids in Grades 1 and 2) to make the actual deliveries as he drove the papers up and down the street. In high school, he ran his own debt-collection agency, which folded when he found himself unable to repossess the fridge of a needy mother. His final venture involved renting an old roller-skating rink and turning it into Skateland. To draw customers, he rented a bus and sent flyers to the local nursing college, offering students a ride and free entrance to the rink. Soon young were packing the place.

After medical school, his father's fate led him to specialize in organ transplants, kidneys in particular. But in the early 1970s it was heartbreaking work. Patients died in great pain as their quickly rejected the new organs until Dr. Stiller led the landmark trial of cyclosporine, the immuno-suppressant that ushered in the transplant era. At the same time, he toured the country giving talks to encourage organ donation, "to give the gift of life." He still gets Christmas cards from a woman who received a kidney 40 years ago.

"Some of my best memories are of driving home at two in the morning from the ICU after a family had agreed to donate a loved one's organs, and knowing that someone facing imminent death was being prepped for the OR," he says.

Dr. Stiller's entrepreneurial work in building the organ-donation program convinced Dr. Friesen that there was "almost no one like him." So he asked Dr. Stiller to turn his mind to boosting research and, nearly 20 years later, estimates he has generated literally billions in funding.

Already a member of the Order of Canada, the London-based Dr. Stiller was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (another institution he co-founded in the 1990s) this year, and also received the prestigious Gairdner Wightman Award for "outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science."

Although nearing 70, with a wife, six children and eight grandchildren to enjoy, he has big plans for the future. He hopes to spearhead the creation of a Great Canadian Pharma Corp. to test potential drugs in their early stages. Financial support for early testing has dried up, he says, as traditional drug companies are focused ever more on late-stage development and manufacturing.

He envisions the new Pharma Corp would be funded by the private sector, the provinces and the federal government, which would all see a return on their investment. Just as Canada's national railroads were built "when we couldn't get our treasures to the ports…," he says, "we have discoveries that are landlocked, too.

"There comes a time when a great national endeavour is necessary."

The Nation Builder

Dr. Calvin Stiller

Born: Feb. 12, 1941 Naicam, Sask.

Positions: physician, scientist, transplant pioneer, entrepreneur, professor emeritus of the University of Western Ontario

Family: Married ( wife Angie is "the exclamation mark in my life"), six children, eight grandchildren

The nation building

Leader of the Canadian multi-centre trials of the anti-rejection drug cyclosporine, leading to its worldwide use and the era of transplant medicine, and first to establish Type 1 diabetes as an immune disorder. Generated billions of dollars for biomedical research, as co-founder of the Canadian Medical Discoveries Fund Inc., founding chair of the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, founder of the Robarts Research Institute at Western, founder and chair of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and co-founder and director of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

The next step

To create the Great Canadian Pharma Corp., a private-public venture to back early-stage testing of new drugs in Canada.