UBC’s Serial Entrepreneurs

UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 7 |
Jul. 7, 2005

Some faculty have been unusually productive in earning patents and starting spin-off companies

By Ai Lin Choo

Robert Hancock will readily admit it was romance that guided him to become a scientist. He remembers he was in his last year of high school when he became struck by what he saw in a magazine.

The object of his affection: penicillin.

“I had decided I was going to be a scientist before, because I felt a scientist is someone who produces something useful,” said the UBC professor of microbiology and immunology.

“But after I read the article on the discovery of penicillin, which seemed to me the most romantic adventure I had ever read, I was certain. And I never thought of anything else.”

What certainly never crossed his mind was that his love affair would one day reach beyond antibiotics to encompass business.

He certainly never planned on becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs at UBC.

Hancock, who has become renowned for his work in trying to boost the body’s natural immunity to combat infection, says that when he was growing up, a scientist would never have considered working with industry.

Still, it was about 15 years ago that Hancock filed his first patent, and his technologies have since been licensed to four companies. Currently, the latest company he co-founded, Inimex Pharmaceuticals, a UBC spin-off company, is working on treating infections without solely relying on chemicals, but by trying to boost natural immunity.

“Scientists back then never really formed companies. The academic climate was hostile towards it,” explained Hancock. “You would quite simply be considered a ‘sell-out.’”

He says initially he was quite content to publish articles and contribute by advancing knowledge without thoughts of seeing his research through in an overtly practical fashion.

“It was only when I got involved with Canada’s Network of Centres of Excellence in 1989, which was designed to try move technology from the university sector into industry, that I started thinking about it,” he said.

“I suddenly realized that if you’re going to see your work turn into something useful, you have to take a bit more responsibility for it.”

Over the past two decades, UBC has been witness to a new trend that has not only disrupted longtime academic principles, but has also taken the field of academia to a whole new level.

Like Hancock, other researchers have also been inspired to market their technologies to secure higher amounts of funding for their work, and turn their ideas into practical spin-offs.

Steven Pelech, UBC professor of neurology and founder and president of Kinexus, is another successful serial entrepreneur who tells a similar career-changing tale.

Unlike Hancock, working with industry began quite early for him, when he realized he was more interested in systems biology and discovery-based research than the more traditional scientific method of testing hypotheses based on limited information.

Pelech says his kind of research was simply “not in vogue” at the time.

He was trying to discover new types of protein kinases, enzymes that have been implicated in hundreds of diseases.
He explains this type of discovery is an integral step in drug development as investigating these proteins can lead researchers to find drug compounds that may control their activity.

“So, soon after I began research at UBC, I was approached by a company who offered me a deal. We were isolating antibodies and they said that if I gave them some of our antibodies, they would give us a royalty,” he said.

Pelech felt that selling antibodies would be a good way to increase the amount of funding he received for his work.

Now, two companies later, the first of which, Kinetek Pharmaceuticals Inc., was recently bought by Vancouver-based QLT PhotoTherapeutics Inc., Pelech has filtered his interests into a unique type of proteomics service that has aided more than 600 drug companies and academics in measuring how kinases behave in the context of cells.

His present company, Kinexus, will also be launching an online database this summer that will enable subscribers to compare these proteins across hundreds of different model systems.

“By continuing to steer our research toward practical outcomes, we can maximize the prospect that our efforts can benefit the scientific community and the public the most,” Pelech explained.

“The university has been great and supportive of us, but things still haven’t changed completely. There’s still hesitation for many who can’t accept us working with industry.”

The two professors say there exists no blueprint, training program or set of strategies that they can pinpoint as integral to a research entrepreneur’s success.

“I just simply love my day job,” said Hancock. “I had no plan when I got into this. Who knows what I’ll be when I eventually grow up.”

Other UBC Serial Entrepreneurs Include

  • Prof. Emeritus A. Chaklader, Materials Engineering
  • Prof. Dale Cherchas, Mechanical Engineering
  • Prof. Pieter Cullis, Biochemistry
  • Prof. Nicolas Jaeger, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Prof. Karim Qayumi, Surgery
  • Prof. and Chair Hennie van Vuuren, Food Biotechnology
  • Prof. Lorne Whitehead, Physics and Astronomy
  • Prof. Ian Yellowley, Mechanical Engineering



To date, UBC has created 117 spin-off companies. Royalties and technology licensing revenues flowing back to UBC in 2005 were nearly $16 million.