Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Center supports impactful solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic
With the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world, researchers are doing all they can to get a handle on the new and devastating virus. From faster testing to repurposed drug therapies to a safe and effective vaccine — the race is on to develop and validate the tools we need to lessen the blow of the global outbreak.
As the crisis wreaks havoc in economic as well as public health realms, startups are quickly adapting their technologies and business models to help develop effective solutions.
“Scientists who have taken the leap into entrepreneurship are certainly one of the keys we must not underestimate for solving the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Xavier-Henri Hervé, founder and executive director of Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Center.
“They can move quickly in helping researchers, industry and government generate feasible market-ready solutions.”
District 3 is working closely with its startup founders to evolve their business models and product development to respond to this global challenge. And, according to Hervé, the centre is ready to work with more scientific entrepreneurs across the province.
On Friday, April 3, District 3 hosted a live webinar and Q&A with the co-founders of two of its life sciences startups.
A portable and faster testing platform
Affinité Instruments recently received a green light from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for trials of a device that will shorten the response time for COVID-19 testing. In partnership with Université de Montréal and Université Laval, the company is developing portable tests to help diagnose immunized people and populations at risk as the pandemic progresses.
Co-founder and CEO Ludovic Live is an analytical chemist who has worked in science and business, including as a policy advisor in Ontario and an assay development scientist with a medical device startup.
He explains that his startup’s miniaturized and faster detection process could help significantly in testing for the coronavirus, compared to current solutions that are more expensive, larger and slower.
“While current methods take up to two days to get testing results, our platform provides it within hours, and hospital staff can use it without specialized lab training,” he says.
Given that rates of community transmission are very high and up to 50 per cent of those with the virus could be asymptomatic, the platform quickly identifies who is at risk, who is infected and who has recovered.
Live adds that the test has a number of applications. For example, it can help determine if a nurse has acquired immunity, to be able to work without exposing themself to the danger of infection and exposing others to the spread.
It can also be deployed in rural and dispersed population areas. Small municipalities could screen for acquired immunity onsite with local resources, avoiding delays associated with transporting blood samples and overburdened centralized laboratories.
“The level of collaboration among scientists, government and industry is unprecedented,” Live says of the current moment. “It’s really an opportunity for people to contribute their skills and join this fight.”
Computational approaches to drug discovery
In addition to how easily the virus spreads, another serious issue is the dearth of effective therapies for treating COVID-19 in vulnerable patients.
The second presenter at the District 3 webinar was Joshua Pottel, co-founder and CEO of Molecular Forecaster. His startup is collaborating with multiple research teams to apply its computational approaches to advance the discovery of repurposed drugs for tackling the disease.
“It’s our duty to support the community and society at large to find solutions for the pandemic,” Pottel says.
By leveraging the company’s experience in medicinal, synthetic and computational chemistry, Molecular Forecaster provides protein modelling software and small molecule modelling using biophysics and artificial intelligence.
Its virtual platform allows for rapid deployment across the globe. The team is working with users and clients from more than 30 countries across six continents.
“We’ve decided to focus on research and collaboration to tackle the challenge,” Pottel adds. “And with the help of our District 3 coach, Edna Chosack, we’re finding a balance between research and business to make sure we’re on the right track.”
Another startup supported by District 3 is IntelliStem Technologies, a biotechnology company pioneering cellular vaccines and peptide therapeutics. The company recently announced the successful development of a peptide-based vaccine intended for human use against the virus.
“Our approach is to trigger both strong cellular and humoral responses leading to not only a therapeutic effect but also long-term protection — five to eight years — from COVID-19,” explains Riam Shammaa, founder and CEO. “The vaccine is also less expensive and faster to develop.”
Shammaa is a doctor, medical director of the Canadian Centres for Regenerative Therapy and a lecturer at the University of Toronto.
“The power of our platform is that it can quickly be adapted to other pandemics and diseases. All we need are the proteins of the disease and within five weeks we can deliver a vaccine,” he says.
Shammaa adds that IntelliStem is currently preparing for phase I clinical trials scheduled for as early as September 2020.
Chosack, Hervé and their colleagues at District 3 are motivated to support more entrepreneurs like Shammaa, Pottel and Live in rapidly developing much-needed solutions to the global pandemic.
With Concordia’s Applied Science Hub set to open this summer, the centre will be launching Montreal’s first biotech accelerator Biohub with a laboratory and co-working space.
Whether under the current crisis or beyond it, bringing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research to market is a major priority for District 3. Over the past six years, it has supported more than 530 startups from all sectors and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, genomics, synthetic biology and digital health.
If you are a scientist looking to bring your research to market and explore entrepreneurship, apply to the Quebec Scientific Entrepreneurship Program.
If you have a team and a potential idea, apply to the District 3 Innovation Center to assess the market viability and business model of your startup.