Mesentech CEO Jonathan Polak gets down to the bone

The successes that Polak has had with Mesentech haven’t come easily

Jonathan Polak still gives credit to his grandfather, who passed away some 30 years ago, for allowing him the life he’s lived. He eventually went to the University of Toronto to study engineering. Then came a few stints with companies in Helsinki, Shanghai and Miami before he left to become a day trader on Wall Street.

“As a young kid in your mid-20s you’re pursuing things in hopes they’ll bring you happiness,” he says. “You may quickly see that you’re making more money than all your friends. But you realize that’s not really the limit. It’s way higher, way bigger dollars. And the scale of everything just gets huge.”

So that money didn’t bring happiness?

“I didn’t stick around long enough to get there, but you do feel that everyone around you isn’t overjoyed,” he recalls. The financial crisis came in 2008 and Polak, like many of his colleagues, was fired. “It ended up being a great thing. It’s like a treadmill, right? You’ve got to keep going. If you only know one track, you only know how to run on that one track.”

Polak found a job with an Israeli agricultural finance startup that took him to Brazil. He went back to Toronto for love (he and his wife are now married with two kids) and started his first company, Datapoint Diagnostics. “We were doing psychiatric diagnosis with an engineering approach—using big data to try and disentangle peoples’ response to medication.”

He doesn’t mince words when asked how that venture went: “Horribly. Psychiatry is very hard. We ended up selling some of the assets to a big pharma company, but it was nothing to brag about.”

Shortly after that, Polak and his family moved to Vancouver—“I never liked Toronto and my wife had always wanted to live here, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it,’” he says. In 2018, he joined Mesentech, which has an office in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood and a lab in Burnaby, as CEO.

Mesentech was founded by renowned chemistry expert and SFU professor Robert Young in 2013 to develop novel therapies to treat bone diseases. This year, the company dosed the first patients with its Phase 1 study for a new bone-regeneration drug, MES1022. The novelty of the discovery is the way it can deliver drugs to bone, which has long been a challenge for treating certain bone diseases. It also announced $15 million in funding.

A scanning electron micrograph of a subchondral bone at full thickness
A scanning electron micrograph of a subchondral bone at full thickness

The accolades for that type of achievement come fast and furious, but again, Polak doesn’t hold back when describing the reality of the situation. “It’s a huge amount of work that has to come together for something to be good enough to go to people,” he says. “So you post on social media and people say congrats. But you don’t post all the shit you had to go through, and the personal suffering and the tradeoffs that you’ve made. I don’t think I can go there, to be honest, but it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns.”

He does, however, give immense credit to the team of 10 employees, along with the many contractors and investors that helped Mesentech get to where it is. That last group includes CureDuchenne, a California nonprofit focused on curing Duchenne muscular dystrophy, one of the bone diseases that Polak and his team hope MES1022 might be able to help.

“This business is kind of like being a frog and jumping from lily pad to lily pad in a swamp,” says Polak. “Your job at any given time is not to get all the way to the end—we want to—but just to get to the next lily pad without falling in the swamp.”

The current lily pad is the first human trials, which will get Polak and his team plenty of valuable information about how the drug works. The next jump will be manufacturing the drug at scale, something Polak says they’ve already shown signs of being able to do. After that, he says, “there are different lily pads you can jump to. In Vancouver, we don’t have vertically integrated pharmaceutical companies. Most Vancouver biotech companies—not all—end up being bought by bigger companies.”

Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that Polak will be straight up about it. “As the CEO of a company, your job is to be the rock—investors rely on you to always be there to pick up the pieces,” he says. “If people see that you’re also human, that can be hard. They don’t want humans, they want superhumans. I don’t know if they exist. There’s lots of them on social media. I’m not a very good actor.”