Credit: Acuitas Therapeutics
For Madden’s biotech, participation in Pfizer vaccine is part luck, part timing and part innovation
President and CEO Tom Madden has two risks for Acuitas Therapeutics: The first is the decision to become a private biotech company. The second is to shift its molecular focus to messenger RNA (mRNA).
When Madden came to Vancouver in 1980, he wasn’t interested in entrepreneurship. He came here with a PhD in biochemistry from the University of London, thinking he was going to enter academia. However, when he started working at UBC as a postdoctoral fellow with Pieter Cullis and a few others in the biotech field, one thing became clear: “We realized that the microscopic particles we were studying could be used to deliver conventional drugs,” Madden recalled.
And, suddenly, he had an opportunity he never imagined.
Over the next few decades, he co-founded companies in Vancouver that were involved in different aspects of drug delivery, such as INEX Pharmaceuticals. Madden claims that INEX is a very typical biotech company in that it relies on capital investment to continue the work it does. During his time at INEX, he was exposed to “the vagaries of capital markets”, and when Acuitas Therapeutics launched in 2009, Madden knew what he didn’t want to do.
“We want to work with partners who support what we do so that we can advance the technology and enable them to enter the clinic,” he said.
Another thing that sets Acuitas apart from other companies in the industry is its focus on delivery technology rather than product development: “There are a lot of very exciting new therapeutics based on biomolecules that have enormous potential, but they all require delivery technology, enable them to work,” Madden said.
“When we started Acuitas, I really wished we [operate] As a pure-play technology company, advance delivery technology and then work with as many partners as possible to make our technology available to them so they can bring their products to the clinic and to market. “
But ultimately becoming a partner company is a challenge in itself: “If you’re a bad partner, the model will crumble and burn very quickly,” insists Madden.
As Acuitas has grown to forge strong partnerships, leading to the company’s most recent involvement in a world-saving project: developing a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s a mantra he takes to heart.
Participating in the production of Pfizer’s vaccine is part luck, part timing and part innovation. Acuitas previously partnered with a German company, CureVac, to provide delivery technology for a rabies mRNA vaccine. “Data from this early clinical study, published in January 2020, showed that the vaccine provided a very strong rabies immune response at very low doses,” recalls Madden. That’s when the pandemic came.
In collaboration with BioNTech (another German partner of its own) and US multinational Pfizer (which is working with BioNTech to develop a flu vaccine), Acuitas has launched a mission to develop a vaccine for 2019-nCoV using the same technology used in the rabies vaccine sick.
Acuitas supports the scale-up of manufacturing and production of lipids needed to produce billions of doses of Comirnaty’s vaccine within a few months. People work 7 days a week, in shifts, remotely and in person.
“One of the absolutely pivotal moments is the release of Phase 3 data showing that the vaccine is 95 percent effective,” Madden said. “Everyone was blown away by how well it worked, incredibly relieved that it worked as we had hoped, and couldn’t be more proud of their contribution to this amazingly rapid development.”
It was a major win for the then decade-old company, but the climb to the top was on a steep slope.
In its inception, Acuitas partnered with a pharmaceutical company to produce an siRNA delivery system that prevents the production of disease-causing proteins. But a year after the partnership ended, Acuitas only had four months of cash left.
An article on mRNA sparked Madden’s curiosity. The decision to start developing lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology for mRNA delivery was a giant leap for the young company, and in true entrepreneurial fashion, Madden embraced it.
That leap has paid dividends, as Acuitas has doubled in size to 55 employees over the past year and a half based on its work on mRNA vaccines and therapeutics.
With double-digit partners, Acuitas is expanding the UBC campus from 5,273 square feet to 12,000 square feet of labs and offices. While some of its partners are interested in mRNA vaccines, many of them are developing vaccines against historically indelible diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.
“We are delighted that the versatility of the mRNA approach will allow us to develop more effective vaccines for these truly challenging diseases,” insists Madden. “Another big area we’re supporting is gene editing. Many companies are looking to provide technology that can correct genetic defects, allowing people with genetic disorders to lead more normal lives.”
10 Questions for Tom Madden
What was your first summer job?
My parents ran a pub in London, UK, and I grew up helping stock the shelves, changing casks of draught beer in the cellar, or working in the back of the pub when needed. My first outside summer job was delivering cars to dealerships. It sounds much more interesting in theory than in practice. In the days before GPS, finding addresses for new homeowners across the country and working hours together created a sometimes unbearable stress. This is a great introduction to the sometimes unexpected challenges of the world of work.
Are entrepreneurs born or made?
This is an interesting question. I think maybe a bit of both. Of course, the underlying drive to create and innovate may be part of an entrepreneur’s DNA, but much of an entrepreneur’s success comes from support, mentorship, acquisition of new skills, and the ability to identify opportunities and take action—and most or this comes from experience and training.
What is your definition of success?
I think every businessman has a different level of success. When measuring any level of success, I have two focus areas. The first is that we – the Acuitas team – promote human health, and on a measurable level, we make the world a better, healthier place. I think we’ve produced extraordinary results in this area and I couldn’t be more proud of this team.
Another measure of success for me is building a great team – we have that at Acuitas. The people working at Acuitas are highly skilled and knowledgeable. They are all leaders in their fields, and they are all good people. They collaborate, engage and participate, and they support and help each other. They make work a pleasure. I think the work we do in advancing human health is more conducive to their participation. They really care about work and about helping people become healthier.
What other work have you done?
While I can’t imagine any other job, I think if I were working under the blue sky, I’d say racer. I’m fascinated by the skill, the ability to stay calm under pressure (and high speed!), and the sheer excitement of the job.
Name one thing people will be surprised to learn about you.
I am an avid rock climber.
Complete the sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need more…”
Entrepreneurs need more self-awareness. Entrepreneurs have vision and drive, know what they want to build or achieve, and have the confidence needed to tackle challenges. However, without self-awareness, they may be blind to personal weaknesses or skill/knowledge gaps, which can be fatal to success.
What is your most admired businessman?
I admire Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. They are all very successful people, but they don’t seek personal approval. They both built exceptional management teams to execute on their vision and then continued to provide strategic leadership while avoiding micromanagement. Furthermore, they all have a strong social conscience and seek to make a positive contribution to society as a whole.
What do you do to relax/relax?
I race, I rock, and I spend time with my wife and our grown children. I love the outdoors – I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, which means I can do a lot!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I like to think that I am inclusive, collaborative and open. We have a great team at Acuitas and I’ve learned a lot from each of them over the years. I consider myself part of the team. While I certainly take on the role and responsibilities of President and CEO, I also know the skills and wisdom of our team, and I appreciate their feedback, ideas and innovations.
Name the items you usually forget to pack when you travel and regret not bringing them.
The first thing that came to my mind was my swimsuit. Work-life balance is very important to me and I love sports and leisure. Swimming, even in the hotel’s small pool, is a great opportunity to relax.