Portrait of Mohammad Ali Amini, 2023 Emerging Leader in Pharmaceutical Sciences recipient

A meeting at a conference led Mohammad Ali Amini to pursue entrepreneurship and commercialize technology developed during his graduate studies. Now CEO of his start-up company, QurCan Therapeutics, Amini has been recognized with the 2023 Emerging Leader in Pharmaceutical Sciences Award from the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, recognizing his accomplishments and leadership in his early career.

“My mission is to create products that can effectively impact patients’ lives. Through all my years of education, this has been my dream – to use science to help patients and send them home disease-free,” says Amini. “Our company started with developing a therapeutic product that can meaningfully improve patients’ health, and we’ve been able to grow beyond our initial idea.”

Amini initially pursued a career in veterinary medicine and practiced as a veterinarian in Iran, where he had attended university. But after he had the opportunity to participate in research projects related to using nanoparticles for drug delivery and vaccines, he decided to change his career and pursue graduate studies in this area.

He was accepted to the PhD program in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, supervised by Professor Shirley Wu, a leading researcher in developing advanced drug delivery systems. Wu had developed a new nanoparticle drug delivery system, and Amini’s research project was to explore a novel active ingredient that could be combined with the delivery system to treat treatment-resistant solid tumours.

“My mission is to create products that can effectively impact patients’ lives. Through all my years of education, this has been my dream – to use science to help patients and send them home disease-free.”

Amini appreciated Wu’s practical approach to using the expertise and technology developed in her lab to tackle challenges in various diseases.

“She and her team think very practically, developing technologies that are simple but address unmet needs,” says Amini. “She really tailors her research focus toward unmet clinical needs and comes up with ideas that are simple and highly feasible.”

Amini and Wu were able to successfully develop the active ingredient and delivery system into a potential imaging agent and treatment for cancer, which showed promise in preclinical studies, ultimately patenting the technology.

Business pitch awards and investors provided capital to launch start-up

As Amini approached the end of his PhD and began to think about career options, he had the opportunity to attend the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists conference in 2018 and met with attendees who had the same qualifications as him to learn about different career opportunities. At one such meeting, a researcher casually mentioned a relative who was launching a biotech start-up based on her patent. This sparked the idea that he could do the same.

In Toronto, Wu and Amini began to work closely with U of T’s patent office on the process to create a start-up and developed materials to pitch the business idea to potential investors and at funding competitions.

Amini entered and won several business pitch competitions, including a $50,000 award from the Ontario Brain Institute, which created the momentum to raise its seed money. In early 2021, Amini successfully closed the seed financing, which was led by the investor FACIT. This seed money supported the company in advancing its proprietary nanoparticle drug delivery technology and therapeutic products.

Amini says COVID-19 pandemic was initially challenging for the company, but ended up raising awareness about the potential of nanoparticle delivery systems, like the one used in the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, and allowed the company to expand beyond its original scope.

“Because of such a massive success story with the mRNA vaccines, we received several expressions of interest from the industry in exploring and utilizing our nanoparticle technology. Over the past few years, our scientists have achieved notable success in demonstrating the capability of our nanoparticle technology to selectively deliver siRNAs and mRNAs to tissues of interest, particularly the brain and the spleen,” says Amini. “This interest enabled us to strategically position QurCan Therapeutics as an innovation-driven nanotechnology biotech with mission to develop the next generation of RNA therapeutics for a wide range of clinical applications.”

Mentors key to learning business skills

Amini began the work to launch the start-up during the final months of his PhD. He then began a post-doctoral fellowship at U of T through a MITACS Accelerate Postdoctoral Fellowship that allowed him to focus on entrepreneurship and business.

While he had limited business experience prior to launching his biotech company, Amini was able to access training and mentors through various incubators at U of T that helped him learn the process. He advises students and new graduates interested in pursuing this path to find supportive mentors and key opinion leaders in the field and be prepared to pivot if needed.

“The learning curve is massive. You may have to step out of your comfort zone, be prepared to receive criticism from experts on your commercialization strategy to help you better understand the market and the problem, and learn how to communicate your solution in a way that anybody can understand. Learning how to do that has been one of my significant achievements in the past few years,” says Amini.

“The Emerging Leader Award comes from a series of efforts I’ve had over the past few years, taking the risk bringing the technology to its potential. It makes me more excited to continue this work and know that I’m on the right path.”

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