Michael Wilson / Craig Knox, CEO and Co-Founder of DrugBank / CTO and Co-founder of DrugBank

Why was drug data for global COVID antiviral research sourced from Edmonton? Because two local entrepreneurs, educated and inspired at UofA, chose YEG as home for the world’s leading drug knowledge base that computers can analyze.

We asked Mike and Craig about the DrugBank journey.

Arden Tse

Accelerate Fund

What’s it been like running the world’s largest pharmaceutical knowledge base during a pandemic?

Michael Wilson

CEO and Co-founder

We’ve had a front row seat to see the evolution of data-driven drug development. As the pandemic began, we added COVID-related drug data and clinical information to our online knowledge base for researchers. Our data was sourced by more than 700 publications related to COVID antiviral development in less than a year. That data-driven approach and AI is how the drug research and development industry has been able to collaborate, discover and commercialize COVID vaccine very fast. 

Beyond vaccines and antivirals, the pandemic has had a forcing function causing people in healthcare to adopt digital tools they may have been resisting. Suddenly, we are all using remote telemedicine and electronic medical records.

Arden Tse

Talk about electronic medical records – how does DrugBank support that shift?

Michael Wilson

In the telemedicine space, electronic records have input points to enter information on drugs prescribed or to query treatment options. Those software fields pull information from DrugBank so health care professionals can get more precise at best selecting and prescribing drugs to improve health outcomes, and reduce side effects. 

Arden Tse

What’s different about DrugBank data? Why is it a Big Data play?

Michael Wilson

At DrugBank we capture and record everything we know about how drugs work and we structure it in a way that it works for software. When the DrugBank idea got its start in Dr. David Wishart’s lab at the University of Alberta in 2006, it was the first database that made relevant drug information accessible to other systems for analysis. Once you have that structure you can start to solve a lot of different problems from drug development and repurposing to precision medicine. We’re living proof that strong academic research from the University of Alberta can become a successful commercial endeavour worthy of investment and support!

Beyond organizing and structuring existing information, we have also developed a ton of proprietary processes and algorithms to build out and keep the knowledge base up to date. Our expert team of medical doctors, pharmacists and pharmacologists author information on drug ingredients, how drugs function in your body, drug interactions and so on and we use Natural Language Understanding (NLU) artificial intelligence tools to review and extract data points in a structure that can be analyzed.

 

Arden Tse

You were trying to close your financing round just as COVID took hold. What was that like?

Craig Knox

CTO and Co-founder

Yes, the pandemic hit in the middle of our round. We had to take our worst case scenario and add in this new risk. We’ve always been careful in our planning but, truthfully the pandemic was not in our business plan. And like everyone else, we were sorting our personal lives. In my house – it took a few weeks to get productive having small kids and working at home.

Michael Wilson

Everyone was shaken up. The market was crashing. Our potential investors were talking to every company they’d already invested in, and some of our investors put decisions on investing in us on hold for a bit while others like Accelerate Fund saw the potential impact we could make in this new environment. Once we got over that hump, we were able to move the conversations forward.

Arden Tse

Then you ended up getting oversubscribed? How did that happen?

Michael Wilson

Within a few weeks investors got to see that our industry was not as negatively affected as some. In fact, many of the markets we serve were growing – doing interesting COVID research, or supporting exploding telemedicine. Lots of factors landed in our favour.

Arden Tse

So happy ending, but what about the oh sh*t moment before then? How did you keep working well together?

Craig Knox

We give each other space when we’re having a bad day. And we’ve come to recognize how we each analyze problems and make plans. We think in a similar enough way that we can come to a decision fairly easily, but we are still able to contribute alternate points of view. 

We also have a ritual of celebrating wins. We take the time to just hang out the two of us, play Mario Kart, have some beers, and notice the high points, even in the thick of it.

Michael Wilson 

I can neither confirm or deny if we have a secret handshake.

We’ve built up a lot of trust and we know when it’s best to bring things up. We were lucky in getting to meet each other as researchers in the lab at University of Alberta. Found out early we had a good connection.

Arden Tse

What was the prompt that led you to raise money?

Michael Wilson

Bootstrapping is too slow. There are bottlenecks and would hold us back from the opportunity. Change in technology space, health industry shifts. If we didn’t raise money we would not have been able to grow fast enough to achieve our vision. 

Craig and I learned a lot with the first startup we ran called OMX. If you’re familiar with 23andMe doing gene testing. It was similar self-testing of metabolites to find information on your health, and then track health over time. The challenge was shipping biosamples, coordinating laboratory analysis, and then visualizing that data in a way that any person could understand. We had bio samples in a crockpot heating up on the kitchen table. 

Point is, we’ve lived with precarious cash flow and saw it was hard to break through. So with DrugBank we’re very clear about the capital we need to scale.

Arden Tse

How did you evaluate who was a good fit investor?

Michael Wilson

We wanted to find investors in line with our values.

There are a couple of models to build a company. One is to take big gambles and you make multi millions or you die. We’re not using that model. We believe in building a strong business base and growing fast, but thoughtfully. We sought out investors that respected that approach, who offered networks with access to niche expertise, and who could help us with follow on rounds. Plus we wanted a mix of local and non-local investors.

Arden Tse

Why did you go with Accelerate Fund?

Michael Wilson

Before we even opened the round, a number of people on the Accelerate Fund team had been helpful to get us prepared with IP agreements, answering questions on how to structure a tech business. We got to know the value of being able to call and ask: “do you know someone who can help us with x?” or “have you ever come up against this?” The Accelerate Fund team had already demonstrated that they’d be helpful, support us and push us in the right direction – so they were qualified investors.

There was an upside with Accelerate Fund participating early in the round too, we could send potential smaller investors to Arden who would share Accelerate Fund’s due diligence. It enabled more investors we wanted to work with to make their decisions. 

Arden Tse

What’s taken you by surprise being in a growth phase in a pandemic?

Craig Knox

Early on, our remote employees in Vancouver and Quebec expressed how much more connected they felt once everyone was working from home. We didn’t expect that!

It’s one thing to keep your company going right now, but we’ve grown rapidly. We’ve remotely hired more than 30 people during the pandemic and they have never been to our office or met each other live. We’ve learned we can scale remotely which has opened new opportunities to hire talent from around the country. Now we’re focused on how to maintain culture, and support strong morale.

Arden Tse

DrugBank is one of the fastest-growing companies in Edmonton. How’s being here important to you?

Craig Knox

There are many institutions and people supporting us here including the University of Alberta – a valuable talent pool for pharmacists and pharmacologists. I repeatedly talk to others in the local tech community that just raised a round – there’s momentum here. And there are drugs out there that exist because of data accessed through DrugBank which we’ve built here in Edmonton.

Michael Wilson

My personal goal is to help people out of the University of Alberta to spin out more companies here. I hope DrugBank can have an impact there – to show with our growth, what’s possible in Edmonton and Alberta.

 

Pharmaceutical knowledge base to enable advances in data-driven medicine.

LOCATION

Edmonton AB

MILESTONES

Academic Project Launched 2006
DrugBank spin-out created 2016
Funded by AF 2020

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Arden Tse

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