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Douglas Hamilton is President and CEO of MetaStat, a personalized medicine company focused on improving survival of patients with aggressive cancer. After graduating with a B.Sc. in Medical Genetics at University of Toronto, Douglas completed his MBA at the Ivey Business School at Western University and has a successful career working in the US venture capital and biopharmaceutical industries. Mr. Hamilton has held positions of increasing responsibility at Pharmacia Biotechnology, Amgen, and Pfizer, in addition founding PolaRx Biopharmaceuticals and Javelin Pharmaceuticals. In this spotlight, Douglas recounts his memories from his time at U of T and offers advice on what makes a strong business leader.

What brought you to the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto for your undergraduate studies?

I had always been interested in science and technology and was one of those people who knew what they wanted to do from early-on. The early 1980’s were a very exciting time; incredible advances in DNA cloning and genetic engineering led to the creation of the first biotechnology companies and recombinant drugs. When I was in high school, I remember hearing Dr. Lou Siminovitch interviewed on the radio and explaining the great advances in genetic research and the promise of biotechnology. Inspired, I called him and asked his advice on how to pursue a career in biotechnology and where I should study.  He was incredibly gracious; I had absolutely no clue that I was talking to the father of Canadian genetics. Dr. Siminovitch was an early inspiration for me, but my leanings were always towards attending the best university to study genetics and U of T was the place to go.

What was the most valuable part of your studies in the Department of Molecular Genetics?

Overall, I think U of T was great for teaching me to think and to solve problems. I found third and fourth year molecular biology courses absolutely fascinating. I can remember thinking how great it was to learn about the latest advances from recently published scientific papers and not text books. To me this was the real deal, learning about cutting edge science from real scientists.  We learned the basics tenants of molecular biology, developed an understanding of how to think about experiments and construct experimental hypothesis. I didn’t fully appreciate the level and quality of my undergraduate scientific training at U of T until I started working for Amgen and took equivalent graduate level courses offered by the company.

What are your most exciting memories from the Department of Molecular Genetics?

Definitely the labs. I had friends in the BA program who had classes from Tuesday through Thursday, while we always had those killer biochemistry or molecular biology labs from 3-5 PM on Friday afternoons!  The summer before my senior year, I received a NSERC undergraduate award and worked in Dr. Michael Klein’s lab at Connaught Laboratories (now part of Sanofi Pasteur).  Dr. Klein served as the Director of Molecular Biology at Connaught and had a cross-appointment as a Professor of Immunology.  It was an incredibly exciting experience. I worked on a team developing an acellular recombinant pertussis toxin vaccine using techniques learned in those Friday afternoon labs.  That summer at Connaught was pivotal – I gained translational research experience and insight how I might one day apply it which was critical in helping to form my decision regarding graduate school. 

When (and how) did you first know that you wanted to pursue a career in life sciences (pharmaceutical, biotech) and that you wanted to become involved in the financial management, venture capital, and R&D operations management aspects of the business?

My passion was in understanding the design and strategy behind the execution of research programs. That - combined with a distinct lack of benchtop talent - pushed me towards designing experiments rather than carrying them out. After working on the vaccine development team at Connaught with Dr. Klein, I was mostly convinced to pursue a career in the biotech industry because working on a research project with a direct link to patient benefit was the most exciting. A pivotal career night offered by the Department of Medical Genetics solidified my thinking.  I spoke with senior graduate students and learned it would be 10 years before I would be getting my first job in industry.  I don’t know if it was impatience or ambition but I knew that wasn’t for me. Instead, I worked for Pharmacia Biotech in sales and marketing then received my Master degree in business administration.

Since then my career has been a hybrid of science and business. Even when I was a CFO of a publicly traded company, I was also the COO and responsible for running research and development. Of course, I don’t do benchtop research - which is probably a good thing - but I work with a great team of scientists and MDs to design product strategy and development programs with a translational focus from preclinical proof-of-concept, through the phases of clinical development to regulatory approval.

How might your experiences in the Department of Molecular Genetics have influenced your career trajectory?

My experience from the Department provided the technical foundation for my career including for positions with more of a business focus including finance, project management and business development.

At what point in your career (academic and/or professional) did you realize that you had ambitions to be part of the executive leadership team?

Being mentored by Michel Klein was pivotal. Dr. Klein became the director of research at Connaught about 6 months after I left my summer fellowship. His leadership and management style were inspirational for me. He shared with me how he ran the department, all the trials and tribulations of hiring people, building effective organizations as well as navigation of politics within a large company. This was a pivotal experience for me in guiding my career and helping to shape my leadership style.

What professional qualities/strengths do you think are critical and necessary for motivating and leading successful teams?

Ultimately you have to know what you’re doing. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that you need to put 10,000 hours in to master a discipline; I think that’s very true. First and foremost you need to master your discipline. However success in managing teams and implementing goal-directed research requires more. Product development is a team sport. You need to know how to facilitate in a matrix environment and work well in teams. You need to build depth and breadth of understanding of other disciplines, how they interrelate and the overall development process. 

What are some of the key challenges (if any) that you faced in your journey to successfully secure the lead executive position at your company?

The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry is led and dominated by very smart people with advanced degrees in science and medicine from all around the world. Deciding to study business over an advanced scientific degree in graduate school did accelerate my career but not without cost.  I’ve had to put in extra effort to battle the perceptions that some MDs have over non-MDs and some PhDs have over non-PhDs. Regardless of your credentials, the academic hierarchy exists in the private sector and establishing credibility and demonstrating that you know what you are talking about is critical. But at the end of the day, it is certainly possible if you put in the time.

One of the keys to rising in an organization is to show that you are effective in delivering results for the organization. This requires developing technical and managerial skills and to be effective on both the strategic and tactical level. 

What are the most pressing concerns in your sector? Where are the biggest opportunities for growing business?

We’re learning at an increasingly exponential pace about how complex biological systems work and the advances that we have made are truly astonishing. We are just scratching the surface in terms of translating scientific discoveries into strategies that can have transformative impact on the treatment of disease.

The biggest opportunities also represent the greatest threats and are not new. The advent of personalized medicine and immunotherapy are truly spectacular advances in patient care. The big challenge is how to pay for these medical advances as costs can quickly overwhelm the system.  The desire to contain health care costs risks constraining innovation.  For example, the recent explosion in genetic testing in the US has been met with aggressive pricing controls by public and private payors.  Laboratories offering these services have closed because of an inability to monetize these diagnostic tests. Patients and physicians have lost access to this technology. If you can’t monetize these technologies, you can’t get investors and investors are catalysts for innovative company formation.

Increasingly, large biopharmaceutical companies are dependent on small companies for their next wave of innovative products.  Maintaining a healthy innovative environment is essential to encourage formation and these companies and to raise the capital required for their growth.  Creating ecosystems supportive of small company formation is essential. Part of that ecosystem is to ensure a healthy investor environment with public policy that supports returns commensurate with the risk.

What advice would you give to students hoping to apply their education toward a career in your sector?

I think it is important to recognize there are a lot of different options and pathways with no good or bad choices. What you learn in your undergraduate or graduate program provides a solid foundation for you to develop a career in biotechnology. Science and technology advance rapidly so a commitment to continuous learning is important to stay current and stay relevant.  

The Department of Molecular Genetics at U of T is a special place and it’s a privilege and real opportunity and if you are accepted into the department. If you are going to take a seat in the program, you should take full advantage of the opportunity - study hard, expose yourself to as many different areas of research as possible, and build your network. Recognize the program is world class and is made up of the best and brightest. Your goofy lab partner could end up being a Nobel Laureate.  Reach out, network and interact your professors and TAs. In my day it was Drs. Collins, Friesen, Fuerst, Klein and Siminovitch - I had unbelievable access and they in turn had tremendous influence over me and how my career evolved.

I’m currently serving as a member of Entrepreneurial Leadership Counsel at U of T and am impressed with all that is going on to further develop and encourage the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The changes in the last 25 years have been astonishing so you might not need to go so far afield as I did to realize your career ambitions in the biotechnology sector.

(Contributed by Leah Cowen and Jonathan Palozzi)