Getting involved with the Pfizer vaccine was part luck, part timing and part innovation for Madden's biotech company
There were two risks that president and CEO Tom Madden took with Acuitas Therapeutics: The first was the decision to be a private biotech company. The second was to shift its molecular focus to messenger RNA (mRNA).
When Madden came to Vancouver in 1980, he wasn’t interested in entrepreneurship. He arrived with a PhD in biochemistry from the University of London, thinking that he’d go into academia. However, when he started working as a postdoctoral fellow at UBC with Pieter Cullis and a number of others in the biotechnology space, one thing became clear: “We recognized that the microscopic particles that we were studying could be used to deliver conventional drugs,” Madden recalls.
And, suddenly, he was presented with opportunities that he never imagined.
Over the next few decades, he co-founded various companies in Vancouver that dealt with different aspects of drug delivery, such as INEX Pharmaceuticals. Madden claims INEX was a very typical biotech firm in that it was reliant on capital investment to continue the work it was doing. Having been exposed to the “vagaries of the capital market” while he was with INEX, when the time came to launch Acuitas Therapeutics in 2009, Madden knew what he didn’t want to do.
“We wanted to be working with partners who were supporting the work we were doing, allowing us to advance the technology and enabling them to move into the clinic,” he says.
Another thing that differentiated Acuitas from others in the industry was its focus on delivery technology instead of product development: “There were lots of very exciting new types of therapeutics that were being developed based on biological molecules and they had huge potential, but they all needed delivery technology to allow them to work,” says Madden.
“When we started Acuitas, I really wanted us to [operate] as a pure technology company, advancing that delivery technology and then working with as many partners as possible, providing our technology to them, to allow them to advance products into the clinic and the marketplace.”
But being a partnering company ended up being a challenge in itself: “If you’re a bad partner, that model is going to crash and burn very quickly,” Madden maintains.
It’s a mantra that he took to heart as Acuitas gradually built up strong partnerships that led to the firm’s recent involvement in a project to save the world: developing a vaccine for COVID-19.
Getting involved in the production of the Pfizer vaccine was part luck, part timing and part innovation. Acuitas had previously partnered with a German company, CureVac, to provide delivery technology for an mRNA vaccine against rabies. “The data from that early clinical study was released in January 2020, showing that the vaccine provided a really strong immune response against rabies, at a remarkably low dose,” Madden recalls. That’s when the pandemic hit.
By collaborating with BioNTech (another one of its own German partners), and American multinational company Pfizer (which was working on a flu vaccine with BioNTech), Acuitas initiated the mission to apply the same technology used in the rabies vaccine in developing a vaccine for COVID-19.
Acuitas supported the scale up in the manufacture and production of the lipids needed to make billions of doses of the Comirnaty vaccine within a few months. People were working seven days a week, in shifts, both remotely and in-person.
“One of the absolute pivotal moments was when the Phase 3 data was released, showing that the effectiveness of the vaccine was 95 percent,” says Madden. “Everybody was just blown away by how well it worked, incredibly relieved that it was as effective as we’d hoped it might be, and incredibly proud of the fact that they’ve contributed to this amazingly rapid development.”
It was a major win for the then-decade-old company, but the climb to the top was on a steep slope.
Right around its inception, Acuitas was working with a pharmaceutical company to produce delivery systems for siRNA, which can prevent the production of a protein that’s causing a disease. But a year after that partnership came to an end, Acuitas had only four months of cash left.
An article on mRNA sparked Madden’s curiosity. The decision to start developing lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology used for mRNA delivery was a big leap for the young firm, and in true entrepreneurial fashion, Madden took it.
The leap paid dividends, because in the last year and a half, based on its work with mRNA vaccines and therapeutics, Acuitas has doubled in size to reach a workforce of 55 people.
With partners in the double digits, Acuitas is expanding from 5,273 square feet to a 12,000 square-foot lab and office in the UBC campus. While some of its partners are interested in mRNA vaccines, a large number of them are developing vaccines against historically indelible diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.
“We’re very excited that the versatility of the mRNA approach may allow us to develop more effective vaccines for these really challenging diseases,” Madden maintains. “The other big area that we’re supporting is gene editing. There’s lots of companies looking at providing technologies that can correct for genetic defects that will allow people that have a genetic disorder to live more normal lives.”
10 Questions With Tom Madden
What was your first summer job?
My parents ran a pub in London, England, and I grew up helping stock up the shelves, changing barrels in the cellar for our draft beers, or working behind the bar when needed. My first external summer job was delivering cars for a dealership. It sounded way more fun in theory than it was in practice. Finding addresses for new owners all around the country in the days before GPS while working to a tight schedule created a level of stress that was at times overwhelming. It was a good introduction to the sometimes-unanticipated challenges in the working world.
Is an entrepreneur born or made?
That’s an interesting question. I think perhaps it is a little bit of both. There is certainly an underlying drive to create and innovate that may be a part of an entrepreneur’s DNA, but so much of an entrepreneur’s success comes from support, mentoring, gaining new skills, and having the ability to recognize and act on opportunities—and most of this comes from experience and training.
What is your definition of success?
I think that there are different layers of success for each business person. I have two areas that I focus on when measuring any level of success. The first is that we—the Acuitas team—advance human health, and on some measurable level, we make the world a better, healthier place. I think that we are creating exceptional results in this area, and I am incredibly proud of the team.
The other measure of success for me is in building a good team—and we have that at Acuitas. The people who work at Acuitas are skilled and highly knowledgeable. They are at the top of their respective fields, and they are good people. They collaborate, are engaged and engaging, and they support and help each other. They make coming to work a pleasure. I think the work that we do in advancing human health is better for their engagement. They truly care about the work and about helping to make people healthier.
What other job might you have had?
While I can’t imagine having any other job, I think that if I were blue-skying this, I would say race car driver. I am fascinated by the skill, the ability to remain calm under pressure (and at high speeds!), and the sheer exhilaration of that job.
Name one thing people would be surprised to learn about you.
I am an avid rock climber.
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more...”
Entrepreneurs need a lot more self-awareness. Entrepreneurs have a vision and a drive, know what they want to build or achieve, and have the self-confidence needed to take on that challenge. However, without self-awareness, they can be blind to personal weaknesses or skill/knowledge gaps that can be fatal to success.
What business person do you most admire?
I admire Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. They are both incredibly successful individuals, but they do not seek personal recognition. They both built exceptional management teams to execute on their vision and then continued to play a strategic leadership role while avoiding micro-management. In addition, they both have a strong social conscience and seek to make a positive contribution to society generally.
What do you do to relax/unwind?
I race cars, I rock climb, and I spend time with my wife and our grown children. I like to be outdoors—and I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, which means I get to do that a lot!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I like to think that I am inclusive, collaborative and open. We have a great team at Acuitas, and I have learned so much from each person over the years. I see myself as a part of the team. While I certainly have a role and responsibilities as President & CEO, I also know how skilled and smart our team is, and I appreciate their feedback, ideas and innovation.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.
The immediate thought that came to mind is my swimsuit. For me, work-life balance is critical, and I enjoy exercise and leisure. Swimming, even in a small hotel pool, is a great opportunity to relax and unwind.