Making the leap from scientist to entrepreneur requires creativity, determination and resilience – not to mention an acute understanding of the real-world need for the innovative technology or idea in question.

Christine Allen, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and who has launched several startups, says the last part of the equation is particularly important.

“It’s not just about whether you have an interesting idea,” says Allen, an expert in drug formulation and development. “You also have to identify a use case for your technology that addresses the problem better than the existing technology and successfully do everything it takes to get the technology to the patient.

“You need to have a clear target market and differentiated value proposition.”

Allen has focused on turning laboratory discoveries into clinical tools since the early days of her career. Following her postdoctoral training at the BC Cancer Agency, she worked as a scientist at Celator Pharmaceuticals before moving back to academia to take a role at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. Since setting up her U of T lab, she has worked closely with the pharmaceutical industry and clinicians to license her patented technologies and support the development of new drugs.

“Since I started at the University of Toronto, I’ve always worked with companies,” she says. “One of the reasons is that I really want to work on research that will result in a new drug or technology or device that can be used in the real world or in patients.”

She has also founded startup companies to advance promising technologies. That includes Nanovista to develop nanotechnology that illuminates tumours to allow for precise image-guided surgery and cancer therapy. The company is currently raising capital to enter a Phase 1 clinical trial.

Listen to Christine Allen discuss her work on the I’m Pharmacy Podcast

Then, in 2023, Allen partnered with Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a professor in U of T’s departments of chemistry and computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science who is an expert in artificial intelligence, to build Intrepid Labs. Intrepid has developed a proprietary technology that uses machine learning and robotics to accelerate drug development through better, faster drug formulation.

The company is the first startup to emerge from the Acceleration Consortium, a U of T institutional strategic initiative led by Aspuru-Guzik that uses self-driving labs to speed the discovery of materials and molecules needed for a sustainable future.

In drug development, Allen says, focusing on the needs of patients and clinicians is paramount.

“As an entrepreneur, you can’t stop thinking about the market, your customers’ problems and how you will solve them,” she says. “The path is not a straight line. You need to iterate, adapt and accelerate.”

Pauric Bannigan started as a postdoctoral fellow in Allen’s lab before becoming the lab’s senior research associate and launching Intrepid alongside Allen, Aspuru-Guzik and U of T alumnus Riley Hickman. He says that launching a company requires effort and resilience, but the team’s commitment to the technology helps them push through the challenges.

“My time in Christine’s lab provided a unique vantage point on the pharma and biotech ecosystem, laying a strong foundation for navigating the entrepreneurial world. Despite this background, the shift to a startup led to many new challenges – from recalibrating our research for market needs to understanding the intricacies of intellectual property and direct customer engagement,” he says.

“Looking ahead, I’m optimistic. Our team is committed, and our technology has the potential to make a significant impact. As we continue to grow and evolve, the experiences gained from each challenge only strengthen our resolve and commitment to success.”

Longstanding interest in women’s health and women in STEM

In her lab, Allen continues to work with pharmaceutical companies to develop new formulations. In recent years, she has been working with Jazz Pharmaceuticals (which now owns Celator) to develop a new therapy for ovarian cancer – a field of research that she is particularly interested in.

“Women’s cancer is something that’s really important to me, particularly ovarian cancer because standard of care hasn’t changed much over time,” she says.

Allen will be presenting her work as the keynote speaker at a women’s health session at the 2024 Controlled Release Society (CRS) annual meeting.

Allen was invited to speak at the session by Hagar Labouta, a scientist at Unity Health Toronto and an assistant professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. They first met through the CRS’s Women in Science Committee, which hosts virtual and in-person events for women in the society and provides annual awards.

Allen also organizes U of T’s Women in STEAM: Leading and Reading book club, which invites students and faculty from across the university and hospital community to discuss books, as well as issues and experiences they face as women.

“Women experience certain challenges that often only resonate fully when shared with other women. It’s comforting to know others have navigated similar issues successfully, reinforcing the belief that you can overcome these challenges, too,” Allen says. “Initiatives like the book club and the Women in Science group foster a sense of community. They ensure individuals feel heard, seen and that they belong – a sentiment that might be hard to find in large organizations.”

Major shift in acceptance of entrepreneurship

Allen says she has seen attitudes about entrepreneurship shift during more than 20 years at the university – and that there is now greater support for scientists and trainees looking to launch startups and commercialize their research.

Allen has been on the forefront of this shift, taking on leadership roles in the university and in industry, including a one-year appointment at adMare Bioinnovations, an organization that helps support Canadian life science companies and researchers.

Her commitment to translational research and commercialization carries over to her trainees. Bannigan notes that Allen’s connections within industry offer trainees unique learning and networking opportunities that help them gain a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship and commercialization.

“Christine always encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, allowing members to work on projects that merge fields such as pharmaceutical science and data science,” he says. “This interdisciplinary approach is crucial for innovation and creates a positive atmosphere where ideas and knowledge are freely shared, which often leads to the development of innovative solutions to complex problems.”

Allen has recently been recognized with two high-profile awards: the Community Service Award from Life Sciences Ontario and the Julia Levy Award from the Society of Chemical Industry, which recognizes successful commercialization of innovation in Canada.

“I feel very proud of the translational work that I’ve done, whether it’s the technologies in my own lab or the drugs I’ve helped formulate and move closer to translation and commercialization,” Allen says.

“When you put a lot of energy and effort into something and people notice, it means a lot. I have been well supported at U of T and in this broad community of biotech, pharma and innovation organizations. Being recognized by people that you really care about means so much.”