Michael Abrams

Michael Abrams President and CEO, Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc.


Michael Abrams
President and CEO, Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc.

B.C.’s biotech sector has had many ventures but few real successes, which makes Michael Abrams something of a local legend. He was the 
founding president of AnorMed Inc., which was sold to a U.S. pharmaceutical company for US$580 million in 2006. That was a few months after Abrams stepped down as CEO, however, following a prolonged feud with dissident shareholders. But he’s climbing back into the chief’s chair once more – this time at a small local lab called Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc. – with his optimism, it seems, undimmed.

What have you been doing since your 
days at AnorMed?

One of the key things my wife and I decided was that we wanted to stay where we are, just south of the border, east of Blaine. We are really happy there and didn’t want to leave the northwest. I’ve been working in the area with the Centre for Drug Research and Development in Vancouver, and I’ve joined the board of Burnaby-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and a couple of private companies. I still have a lot of confidence in emerging technologies that are being developed locally, and I felt I would want to contribute to driving 
one of those further. The opportunity came up during the summer to join Inimex.

What enticed you back into a management position? 

It was the potential for this technology and the challenge of trying to figure out how to best apply it. The company has developed a class of drug that seems to be able to fight infections without actually being an antibiotic. It doesn’t attack the pathogen per se; it works to improve the ability of the patient to fight the infection. One of the real issues with antibiotics has been the ability of the pathogens to develop resistance against drugs. By instead looking at the patient’s ability to fight the infection, we would hope that there would be fewer resistance issues. They have still managed to keep it safe in the first trial, and that is a huge step. The challenge now has been, What specific disease are we going to apply this to? If we can figure out how best to use it, it would be a fabulous opportunity. 

Biotech leaders often seem like scientists who only reluctantly became businesspeople. Is that true for you?

I think the people who, like myself, end up bridging from a scientific role to a business role wouldn’t get there unless they love the science and love the innovation aspect also. There’s nothing like a sweet deal.

Biotech is tough, considering the technical challenges, financial risks and regulatory hurdles. How did you land in this field?

It is really hard. On one hand, if you successfully develop a pharmaceutical, it is usually rewarding financially, but the road getting there is long, difficult and risky. My excuse is that the first thing I did as a graduate student was work on a project that became an approved pharmaceutical. It became a half-billion-dollar-a-year product in the diagnostic imagery field. This was my first experience as a scientist, and I was pretty much hooked on doing drug discovery. If that’s the first thing you do, you get this ridiculously optimistic view that, Oh well, how hard could this be? I subsequently had my hard knocks over the following 28 years, but I feel that it’s been worth it. 

In all that time, how has the industry in Vancouver changed most?

That’s a well-told tale of woe. I remember in the early 2000s when you had QLT – with that beautiful facility they had – and Angiotech, both with billion-dollar-plus valuations. There was a huge feeling of optimism and potential. And then what happened subsequently . . . AnorMed at least had an exit with a financial reward. On the other hand, I think there was a lot of good potential in that company that will never be able to be fulfilled. It is a struggle to reach that sustainable point, to be able to build a giant; it is just a critical-mass question. But you still have some very good people in the industry and the universities driving the generation of interesting intellectual property. You will see comings and goings, but the desire to develop these intricate technologies is perennial, and you’ve got the people around here who want to do it. 

What are you doing for the Olympics?

Staying away. I am looking at that with trepidation, as I think most locals are.