Julie Levy

Biotech Company

Today Julia Levy, 74, is sitting by the seaside outside her cabin on a remote B.C. island, typing away at a novel. In her long career, she toughed it out in one of the most unforgiving businesses you can name and came out a winner – at least for a time. There aren’t many biotech entrepreneurs in B.C. who can say the same.

Levy retired from QLT Inc. in January, a company she helped found in 1981 that grew into B.C.’s most successful biotech in the early 2000s and has since taken a significant tumble. After all that, she surely deserves a break.

That’s not to say she’s stepped out of the biotech game – far from it. Levy is now on a half-dozen boards of junior biotech companies, lending her substantial experience to a new generation of lab-coated entrepreneurs dreaming of the next biotech powerhouse. The work is certainly a benefit to the sector, but Levy says she’s doing it for her own personal satisfaction as well. The work reacquaints her with the motives that got her into the business in the first place: her love for the science, the pursuit of discovery and the chance to change the lives of millions.

It seems like you’ve traded one big job for a lot of small jobs. Is that how it feels for you?

That’s what I planned. That was orchestrated because I want my life back. I want to do other things as well as work.

What is your role these days?

It’s mainly mentoring. It’s hard to get board members on these companies that have actually had the experience, and I feel I play an important role on that level in guidance.

What are these companies looking for?

Well, they all need money. It’s a very, very tough scene out there right now. It’s way tougher than it was, say, seven or eight years ago. The sources for venture capital in this country are almost dried up, and there’s also been too many spinners. But the U.S. is starting to come back now, and I think most of the junior companies in Canada are unfortunately finding a large amount of their investment south of the border.

What areas do these junior companies need help with?

You name it. Even getting together presentations for venture capitalists, knowing what it is VCs want to hear, because some of them have never done that before. You can usually only count on an open door once, and if you make a bad impression, the door is shut. It’s that sort of background knowledge of having been there and done that and gotten a product to shelves.

What do you get out of working for these companies?

It is enjoyable for me because I like the science. See, I’m a scientist. Frankly, I’m not that interested in businesses that are running. I’m much more interested in the challenge of the early discovery or commercializing, making something that’s valuable. That’s really where my greatest gift is, so I’m using that, and it’s intellectually satisfying.

Do you miss any parts of the big company jobs?

Not really, no. The one thing that I enjoyed a lot in the latter years was when QLT was looking at buying a technology or buying a company and looking at the technology itself and assessing it. So my head’s always been in the science end of things; that’s where I get my kicks.

What needs to happen in the B.C. biotech community to help that sector stay a vibrant part of the economy?

I’ve talked about this to analysts, and I think the sector needs a few more successes. In the U.S., it’s so different: there’s so much more going on and there are trickling bits of success coming in and that gives investors an opportunity. I have hopes that if some of these companies in Vancouver get off the ground and get some financing, the Canadian investors will say, “There’s something here.”

What new ideas are getting you excited these days?

It’s not difficult to excite me with a scientific idea. Cannasat Therapeutics is a company looking at legal cannabis and trying to formulate it so that people who needed it for pain can take it without getting the high. I think pain is an area that really needs new drugs, and I think it’s unfortunate that cannabinoids have been slammed the way they have because of pot. I want to help that company go to the next stage if I can because I think they’re on to something that’s important and could ­really help humanity. The cannabinoids are very good pain controllers and they don’t have the addictive properties that alkaloids such as morphine do.

The biotech business model seems insanely challenging. What is it that draws you to it?

That’s a good word for it. Why would anyone in their right mind go into it? I think that people are really motivated and dedicated to it. You always find something like a family member who got the disease they’re working on or some kind of connection with what they’re dealing with. The motivation is “good.” It comes from the soul. It’s not like other businesses, where money is the sole purpose. That’s why crazy people go and do it. And even crazier people invest in it.

You’ve said you’re getting a bit more of your life back since leaving QLT. What are you doing with your time?

I’m trying to write. I enjoy it very much. I have not tried to publish anything yet, but in the last three or four years I’ve written three novels that I think are quite good stories. I’m going to try and see if I can get someone to look at the third one. I’m actually doing that research right now. It’s science-based and it’s set in the future, based on biotechnology in the 2050 range.