Don Rix, the MD who shed his practice to become the Don of the biotech business has a presence in much of the medical research happening in B.C. today. He knows all the players, understands the science and fully appreciates the industry’s potential. In other words, don’t try to bluff him.
As the founder and chair of MDS Metro, chair of the BC Innovation Council, chair of Genome BC and a member of the Premier’s Technology Council, Don Rix, 73, is the granddaddy of local biotech. As such, he regularly finds himself sitting across the table from eager entrepreneurs desperate for a cash injection. Twenty years of listening to pitches has paid off – Rix knows when to open his wallet and when to bolt. Three things will determine whether a biotech start-up will fly or flop, he says: the people, the science and the money. “The people are key,” says Rix. They have to be flexible enough to change directions midstream if the science doesn’t bear out, but determined enough to stick with a good concept and make it work. “Before I look at the science, I want to know what makes them tick, how committed are they and is this just a side thing,” he says of the character assessment biotech execs get before Rix scrutinizes the science. “When I start getting the pat answers and power point presentations, I just ask them to stop and I talk to them,” he says. “I easily get a feel after 20 minutes.” (And hint: If it’s a quick meeting, you might as well move on.) Since 2003, the Rix-chaired BC Advantage Fund has raised $22.7 million and invested in 12 biotech companies. He joined the venture capital fund with a biotech bent because “I could see there was a lack of seed funds and a lack of mentoring.” And his own cash frequently finds its way into winning biotech start-ups. Rix was an early investor in Aspreva Pharmaceuticals, a Victoria biotech that focuses on using approved drugs and drug candidates for underserved diseases. The company nailed first-round financing last year worth US$57 million. Rix also got in early on B.C. Biotech darling QLT. (In the early 1970s he bought 25,000 shares for $1 apiece. The stock has since split and now trades for about $14.) These days, he’s back-ing Vancouver-based Sirius Genomics, which is studying critically ill patients’ reactions to certain drugs.