By Michelle Duklas
“I think you have to be a little bit crazy, honestly, to do start-up companies in our area,” says Brad Thompson, CEO and President of Oncolytics Biotech. Oncolytics conducts research to find a cure for cancer.
In 1998, when Patrick Lee, Matt Coffey and Jim Strong approached Brad Thompson about starting a biotech company in Alberta, Thompson agreed to the business venture. Thompson, a well-known and respected researcher and previous employee of the Alberta Research Council, knew the instability and unpredictability of biotech companies. At the time, he acted as the CEO of Synsorb Biotech, a company producing a drug to lessen the effects of E. coli.
“The time commitment and risk profile is really off the scale,” says Thompson, “so you have to have some sort of hook to get you interested in doing this.”
In the early 1990s, Brad Thompson went to his doctor with a complaint: he believed a mole on his thigh appeared cancerous. His doctor looked at it, and the next morning, a surgeon called him and scheduled him for surgery. The surgeon cut out a three-inch diameter of skin from his thigh, in order to ensure that the melanoma wouldn’t spread.
For Thompson, there was a hook. He had been diagnosed with melanoma.
When asked about whether he gets paranoid about moles now, Thompson said, “I’m covered in moles. If I got paranoid about moles, I’d never get any sleep. There was something about that one. It didn’t really look different, honestly. I don’t know why. It was at a very early stage. The specialist said he’d never seen a melanoma that early. I was very lucky because, if it was six months later, I probably wouldn’t be here talking.”
His mother, Doreen, died of lung cancer. “Seeing my mom waste away the way she did was hard and, if you can do something about it, it would be a good feeling. If [our product] does what we hope it does, millions of people will benefit from it and that would be a very, very good feeling.”
Patrick Lee, the brains behind the technology, knew he wanted Thompson to run the company. “He has the contacts; he made the connections we needed. I simply couldn’t have done what he has [done].”
Thompson, an Edmonton native, credits the great community in Alberta for the success of Oncolytics. “Alberta is a great place to raise money. Since July 1999, the companies I’ve been involved in have had $80 million invested; $60 million of that came from Alberta. The finance community in Alberta is receptive to new ideas.”
Oncolytics Biotech is currently working on finishing Stage III trials on their main product, Reolysin. Trials should be completed later this year.
“It’s exciting,” said Thompson, about the prospect of the trial completion. “ I mean this is what we did all of that work for and put up with all we put up with – to get to the stage where you actually get to show that it definitively works or not. It’s kinda neat – it’s one of those industries where medical need and that whole feel-good factor of coming out with something that presumably will help a lot of people – I mean if this product works the way it looks like it’s working in early clinical studies, we could be treating literally hundreds of thousands to low millions of patients every year.”
Clinical trials require a lot of funding from shareholders. Thompson says that he takes his role very seriously and that there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with taking people’s money. “Your shareholders are the most important people in your life,” says Thompson. “So you treat them with respect.”
Most of all, Thompson values the excitement of his job. He used to be the CEO of Synsorb Biotech, a company that produced products to treat E. coli contamination. “When I left Synsorb,” he said, “I came here for $1 a month salary. That can be a little touchy at home. Your family looks at you like you’re nuts or something.”
Despite the risk, Thompson knows that there’s the potential to strike gold in this business, and find the cure for cancer. The potential for failure remains likely. “I honestly can’t imagine a job that’s more fun,” he admits. “If you’re an adrenaline junkie, this is the business for you.”
SourcesAlazraki, Melly (2010, June 2). “Harmless Virus Could be Answer to Cancer.” Retrieved March 31 2012 from http://www.dailyfinance.com/2010/02/06/this-virus-could-be-the-answer-to-cancer/ Infoport (2000). Dogged Belief. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from http://www.infoport.ca/techrev/bins/content_page.asp?cid=9160-9175-9396&lang= Konotopetz, Gyle (2000, November 15). “Cancer fight is personal for Oncolytics Boss.” Retrieved March 31 2012 from http://www.businessedge.ca/archives/article.cfm/cancer-fight-is-personal-for-oncolytics-boss-4676 Oncolytics Biotech (2012). Board of Directors. Retrieved March 12 2012, from http://www.oncolyticsbiotech.com/board-of-directorsWeiss, Sam and Rancourt, Derrick (2000). “The Ride of their Lives.” Retrieved March 12 2012, from http://www.aihealthsolutions.ca/publications/newsletter/Fall00/fall00/inside/ride.f eat.htm