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U of T startup ProteinQure applying computational methods to structurally design pharmaceuticals

Company one of two U of T startups selected for Google for Startups Accelerator Canada
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ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY
ANANYA ANANTH/THE VARSITY

ProteinQure, a startup launched out of the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, was recently selected by Google to join the first cohort of its new Canadian accelerator program. ProteinQure is one of only nine companies in the cohort and is joining the program alongside fellow U of T startup Bridge7.

The company uses high performance computing and machine learning to take a structure-based approach to drug formulation. The company’s co-founders Lucas Siow, Tomas Babej, Chris Ing, and Mark Fingerhuth met through the CDL, where they were able to combine their areas of expertise.

The Varsity spoke with Siow, ProteinQure’s CEO and an alum of Rotman’s master of business administration (MBA) program, about the company’s early days and company mission.

Homegrown innovation

Having access to programs like those offered by the CDL can play a critical role in starting a company. According to Siow, the CDL provides an ecosystem that can bring people together and allow them to compete with larger, established companies.

When asked about ProteinQure’s business strategy, Siow explained that it was “knowing when and how to find help [and] knowing when to ignore help and when to listen.” He added that the co-founders’ diverse background provided them with additional insight from each other’s varied work and academic experiences.

Multidisciplinary science

Siow described ProteinQure’s mission as “trying to accelerate novel therapeutic development by building and sharing the computational tools, which would help improve our understanding of biology.” Such an undertaking encompasses many fields — beyond the scope of Siow’s MBA and his academic background in mathematics and statistics.

Babej and Fingerhuth were both in the CDL’s quantum computing stream. While working on a problem related to protein folding, they realized that they would need to collaborate more with  experts in other subject matters. “They… set out to… find complementary people,” Siow said. “So that included Chris, who was doing his PhD in biology, and myself, who was from the business side and who was finishing up the MBA.” 

Going forward with Google

The Google for Startups Accelerator is a three-month-long boot camp designed to help startups grow and become sustainable businesses. Siow hopes that the program will help ProteinQure with software infrastructure and machine learning, as well as provide networking opportunities with other Canadian startups. “There’s always a lot of benefits from forming a network from which to kind of discuss and a peer network to get help from,” Siow said.

Going forward, ProteinQure has ambitious goals and hopes to be a trailblazer in the biopharma field. They aim to become one of the first big biopharma companies in Canada that uses a computational platform to make multiple products.

“The question with any kind of tech or science based startup [is] how do you get there?” Siow continued. “You have to build your way toward scientific breakthroughs, as well as the commercial breakthroughs, and that’s what makes the company challenging but fun.”

Advice for the up-and-coming

For aspiring entrepreneurs, Siow has two pieces of advice. “Really choose your first jobs selectively, and by that, I mean really emphasize and prioritize learning and the people you’re going to work with,” he explained.

“You’re much better off picking a team that you like and can work with and can learn a lot from and respect, and an environment where you’re going to be given a lot of opportunity to do learning, not just a small cog in the machine, if possible.”

Siow also highlighted the importance of networking: “It’s super important when you do eventually decide to do a startup that you have not just a network of customers or investors, but really a network of peers that you can lean on.”

He added that these connections can serve you in a number of different ways down the road and provide “a group of people from whom you can recruit.” Siow said, “Whether it’s to find your co-founders or future employers, it’s super important that eventually you are able to build — hopefully — a world-class team.”