New medicines are no longer one-size-fits-all. Therapies are more complex, manufactured in smaller batches and personalized for specific patient groups or even individuals. New pharmaceutical manufacturing technologies with greater flexibility, cost-effectiveness and quality assurance are needed to make those therapies.
Seated at their laptops, a microbiologist and an engineer wrote a business plan to upend how injectable therapies are manufactured. As if that was not daunting enough, Christopher Procyshyn and Ross Gold, co-founders of Vanrx Pharmasystems, timed their venture when markets were at their tightest, at the height of the 2008 financial downturn.
Investors were more cautious than usual and potential clients were without funds to invest in technologies.
The two entrepreneurs persisted. While discussing their plans in a Vancouver coffee shop, another businessperson recommended that the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) could help advance their plan.
The right vision
Procyshyn and Gold's idea involved combining technologies proven in making semiconductors and automobiles, including robotics and machine vision systems. Their product targets the crucial step where clients recognize value: filling containers such as vials, syringes or cartridges with drug products and closing those containers.
Within a week, Procyshyn and Gold met with Paul Barran, an Industrial Technology Advisor at NRC's IRAP.
Barran's experience working with biotechnology companies led him to see the merit in the notion of a Vanrx system. Barran says he worked to "bring the right people to the table: colleagues and network contacts with industrial design and regulatory expertise." Those who could suggest design efficiencies and provide advice on regulatory approvals for different markets globally.
"IRAP was key to get to the stage of filing our first patent, and delivering a working, sellable product."
Together, the co-founders achieved their "lean and clean" vision by making a self-contained machine about the size of a minivan. They developed Vanrx's SA25 Aseptic Filling Workcell, which is the first gloveless, robotic isolator of its kind. Vanrx's use of automation limits human interactions and the possibility of introducing contaminants to support manufacturers in meeting stringent quality regulations.
Procyshyn adds that Vanrx's system "is ten thousand times cleaner than an operating room, and as technologically sophisticated as a commercial aircraft," making it suited for new injection therapies to treat cancers, immune disorders and other conditions.
IRAP supported several R&D projects, which led Vanrx to validate its technology, build its first prototype, add features and close a round of private financing by early 2009.
"IRAP's due diligence and support was the catalyst for getting Vanrx going," said Procyshyn, now Vanrx's Chief Executive Officer. "Paul was able to draw together people from varied disciplines with different experiences and ideas, but who could focus on a defined purpose."
Changing the game
Today, Barran describes Vanrx as "going gangbusters."
The company has developed more than 30 technologies and grown from its 2 co-founders to more than 50 employees. They serve a client base of pharmaceutical companies and contract manufacturers using the Vanrx system to develop medications that are among the most complex in the world.
Procyshyn witnesses clients get excited about the Vanrx system, and he enjoys "hearing them tout it as a game changer for pharmaceutical manufacturing." The attraction for them is beating out the competition by getting new treatments to market faster. Vanrx lets them do so by how readily they can set up the Vanrx machines, and flexibly manufacture pharmaceuticals, according to production demand, with less downtime between batches of different medications.
Procyshyn says, "IRAP was key to get to the stage of filing our first patent, and delivering a working, sellable product." And he realizes that Vanrx must continue to invest in R&D to compete at a world-class level with a Canadian cure that improves manufacturing.