By Andrew Seale
Four years ago, Naheed Kurji sat in the audience at the Venture Capital Investment Competition, hosted by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management watching Jason Mitakidis pitch the idea for Cyclica.
“At the time it was nothing besides just a really good idea,” explains Naheed. But over the next couple of years, the entrepreneur kept an eye on Jason’s Cyclica project, watching it grow into a sophisticated product called the Ligand Express. The platform – geared towards small and medium sized pharmaceutical companies – leverages big data and machine learning to identify and predict interactions between proteins in drugs, helping to anticipate side effects, unlock repurposing opportunities, and help to expedite the research and development process.
And today, Naheed helms Cyclica as CEO and president.
“Jason’s a great scientist, a very smart guy, (and he) kept running the business and doing a commendable job at bringing it from an idea to something that had legs,” says Naheed. But here came a time when Jason wanted to step aside and hire on some fresh entrepreneurial minds. Naheed got a call to join in 2014, taking the role of CFO shortly thereafter and then stepping in to fill Jason’s shoes when the founder decided to step down as CEO.
Today, the Ligand Express-maker has raised multiple rounds of funding including the most recent $2 million milestone and partnered up with IBM Research. Cyclica has evolved from that “really good idea” to a validated, patent-protected commercialized product with a suite of tools to offer drug testers more analytics.
“Things are looking very positive for Cyclica, ”says Naheed. “I'm in a fundraising mode (that’s) my goal right now.”
But the Cyclica CEO says Toronto’s life sciences ecosystem has played no small role in the for ward momentum.
“Toronto is the centre point of the life sciences community in Canada and one of the hubs globally,” says Naheed pointing to the corridor from the University of Waterloo to McGill University in Montreal. “We have access to the smartest bioinformaticians, business biologists and computational biologists (and) most well-educated scientists in various fields of medicinal chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology, computational biology.”
The wealth of talent has elevated the life sciences startup’s mission.
“It's incontrovertible that Cyclica being a Toronto born and bred company is really very much in the meritocracy of the institutions that surround us,” he says. “We have the smartest people in our space – from our advisors to our employees – and it's all because we're located in Toronto.”
He also points to the traction the city’s life sciences industry has gained from the investment community and the backing from commercialization centres like MaRS Discovery District, where Cyclica is a client, and the Research Innovation Commercialization centre in Mississauga.
“There's a lot of support, it's a strong ecosystem and it's growing,” he adds. “We're continually iterating as a community and improving…the infrastructure is there, now we’re building off of it.”