Biotech startup firm finds a (small) pot of gold
Aquila Diagnostics has been toughing it out in the biotech-startup sphere for more than six years. Finally, a little light in the tunnel.
by Michael Ganley
Three years ago, I wrote a story about a biotech company being nurtured at the University of Alberta. Aquila Diagnostic Systems had developed a small plastic chip with 10 compartments that hold the chemicals and reagents needed to perform genetic tests. The company was pitching the chip as a useful tool in the battle against malaria because it needs no refrigeration, is easily administered in the field and provides the kind of immediate and consistent results that are demanded by national and world health bodies.
As CEO David Alton said at the time, the company faced “the valley of death” – the financial chasm that stands between research and a viable business. Well, after three years of tough slogging, Aquila has made it part way through that valley. The company recently announced a $1.75 million investment from Benslie International, a Chilean company with a long history in biotech. “Connecting with an investor who knows the space was really important,” Alton says. “They’re sophisticated, smart investors. They got the point right away and dug right in as a good investor should.”
Finding this money was a combination of a tactical shift and plain luck. First, the company put the malaria application on the back burner and focused on animal health, where the regulatory obstacles aren’t as high and the market is huge – just ask any pet owner. Then current CEO Brent James (Alton is now COO) had a chance encounter with a neighbour in Vancouver who put him on to Benslie. “How much of life is just who you bump into?” Alton wonders wistfully.
The investment is hardly the end of the road. The money will allow Aquila to hire more people, get into production and through regulatory hurdles in the U.S. and Canada. But Alton estimates the company needs in excess of $3 million more to get fully into product sales and distribution. But he’s still going to enjoy the moment. “We’ve been talking about it for so long and are now starting to do all the things in our business plan,” he says.
Cheers to entrepreneurs who tough it out take Alberta a small way down the trail of economic diversification.