Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with BG Therapeutics, this year’s McGill Dobson Cup winner of the inaugural L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award, which recognizes promising innovations in the areas of green chemistry, material and health sciences. Learn more about BG Therapeutics’ revolutionary discovery with glass – not exactly as we know it, and their journey of perseverance, scientific genius and entrepreneurial ambition to improve lives. – Cover Photo Credit: Owen Egan
READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017
William (Will) Lepry is a PhD’17 candidate in Materials Engineering at McGill University’s Faculty of Engineering. A humble graduate student, born in Vancouver, BC and raised in Centennial, CO, Will is sometimes known as “the Glass Guy” within the Faculty. His ingenious discovery with glass emerged as a pleasant surprise after numerous trials, errors and failures in the lab one summer. Supervised by Prof. Showan Nazhat in the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering – who expresses being genuinely impressed with Will’s research, their work and progress in bone tissue engineering has enormous potential to revolutionize the medical application of glass material, including significantly accelerating bone healing, treating sensitive teeth, as well as many other tissue engineering applications.
About BG Therapeutics
BG Therapeutics is a Canadian biomedical startup built on a platform technology based on a patent-pending process for making bioactive glasses with potential to treat numerous tissue engineering challenges.
Let’s start from the beginning. What brought you to McGill University in the first place?
WL: In my past job, I worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory [operated by the Department of Energy] making glasses and ceramics to encapsulate nuclear [power plant] waste, and its byproducts, for safe, long term storage. I’ve also been lucky to have various internships with glass and ceramics during my undergrad, however I always kind of knew I wanted to focus more on medical materials, such as bioactive glasses, as they can make a direct impact on human health. This led me to choose the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering because of Prof. Nazhat’s research in that field along with McGill’s reputation. It was also international for me as well, coming from the U.S., and I heard great things about Montreal. This seemed like the perfect fit for grad school so I applied and here I am almost five years later.
SN: Just to add to that, when I received Will’s grad school application, I was very much attracted by his background in ceramics engineering and some research experience at the U.S. Department of Energy on phosphate glasses. We are also interested in the application of phosphate based glasses in the biomedical field. I was very pleased that Will had chosen to come to McGill and carry out his PhD research in my lab. This opened up a whole new avenue, and like Will said, he was very focused about what he wanted to do. It’s something very novel and it’s great to be part of it, supporting this initiative that he established and we’ll see where it’s going to take us.
Could you demystify your “glass” in simple terms for us, please?
WL: People are usually terrified when I tell them that I want to put glass inside their body. It’s a shocking statement, but that’s my ambition. Part of the problem of getting people to think of glass as a medical material is that glass is very common in everyday life. A person uses glass hundreds of times a day – windows, bottles, furniture, screens… everything! They think of it as a clear, fragile, sharp and inert material, but by adjusting the chemistry and processing route it’s possible to create a glass that can rapidly dissolve when it’s in contact with water or inside your body – something you wouldn’t think glass normally can do. With bioactive glasses like the ones we use, it would be difficult to tell the difference between what we make and flour, per se. So, it’s a very fine powder, not sharp, and designed to dissolve or convert to a calcium-phosphate. That’s the idea of the chemistry behind it. Translating concepts like this into more general terms is, of course, one of the biggest hurdles for us and science in general.
SN: When originally conceived by Dr. Larry Hench, the scientist who developed the first-generation of bioactive glasses, he found that upon their dissolution in biological fluid, a calcium-phosphate layer was created on top of their surface that mimicked the inorganic component of bone and led to their seamless integration with host tissue. The idea of bioactivity in the context of bioactive glasses was coined. These glasses have been in clinical use for mineralized tissue applications. In addition, there is currently a very active research field in bioactive glasses that has stimulated a lot more ideas in trying to diversify their applications; that is, finding wider biomedical applications of bioactive glasses, which is also what we are trying to accomplish through the work here.
… by adjusting the chemistry […] it’s possible to create a glass that can rapidly dissolve when it’s in contact with water […] – something you wouldn’t think glass normally can do.
What motivated your specific research and particular interest in glass?
WL: In the spectrum of the materials world, glasses and ceramics are very similar, and one of my first passions was ceramic art. This eventually lead to my undergraduate degree in Ceramic Engineering at Alfred University where I took many courses on glasses and ceramics. I’ve also undergone three knee surgeries. The first and most major one was from a skiing accident at 17 when I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Before my third surgery, about 6 years ago, I was told that I might need a bone graft to fill a hole in my tibia in order to create a new anchor point for my potential third ACL graft. That would’ve required two separate operations – one to fill the defect and another to place the graft. This got me thinking that there had to be a faster way and that this could be completed in one operation. Due to my previous two injuries, I had an inkling that I wanted to study something medically oriented, since I spent quite a bit of time around surgeons and physical therapists, but that consultation was the spark when I knew for sure of what I wanted to do.
As I mentioned previously, I’ve worked with glasses and ceramics in the past for many different applications. One of my projects at the Department of Energy was with a solution-based processing approach to make ceramics for nuclear waste encapsulation. I started thinking about other processing methods for making glasses and ceramics, including the sol-gel method, which is a low temperature, solution based processing approach [as opposed to the high temperature processes most commonly used]. In my spare time, I read papers about this and came to realize it was a fairly niche field for glasses, so I decided that this is what I wanted my dissertation to focus on. The idea for my particular research came from me reading through the glass literature and realizing there is a gap – specifically, no one had studied sol-gel derived borate glasses for biomedical applications… Possibly due to the unique chemistry or non-practical uses of borate glass. I proposed the idea to Showan, who encouraged me pursue to it, and after some promising initial data, we just went for it! While major injuries are never fun, I hurt myself playing sports I love and I realize that not everyone is as lucky as I am in that sense so, finding a quicker way to improve bone healing, and healing in general, is my overall goal.
The idea […] came from me reading through the glass literature and realizing there is a gap… […] finding a quicker way to improve bone healing, and healing in general, is my overall goal.
SN: The potential of sol-gel processing of borate-based glasses in the biomedical field is currently not well-explored. Will saw that there was a niche in the biomaterials field. We quickly realized that this technology is very novel and we were able to follow with the patent filing through McGill. Now, it’s published in the journal Chemistry of Materials and Will has also published several follow-up papers on this work. As far as we know, there is very little research being carried out on sol-gel-derived borate glasses as biomaterials, which makes our work unique.
Out of curiosity, what was your initial discovery process?
WL: The discovery itself involved a lot of trial and errors. I started making glasses that have been published in the literature, just to make sure I made those correctly and to learn the process and eventually I came up with my own processing method and formulations. It was basically a summer of failures at the start, but one morning, after I had left an experiment going overnight, I saw that a gel formed [part of the sol-gel processing technique]. I had my mini “eureka moment” and thought to myself, “this is it” and the research just took off from there.
As far as we know, there is very little research being carried out on sol-gel-derived borate glasses as biomaterials, which makes our work unique.
What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
SN: Currently, the glasses that have clinical approval are the first-generation, silica-based bioactive glasses. Our glasses that Will has developed are borate-based, which are less chemically durable, less stable and dissolve more rapidly. Will has demonstrated that the conversion rate to calcium-phosphate is much faster when using sol-gel borate-based glasses. Our interest is to try to potentially widen the application of these glasses by having glasses of controllable dissolution rates to match the healing requirements of various tissues.
WL: Our overall goal is to improve the rate and quality of bone healing. So, this is what I started to focus on, but with more research and as Showan stated, we realized that this technology could be used for many different applications beyond bone to improve human health such as dental and soft tissue applications. At the moment, there is a renewal in the bioactive glass community… they have always been used for bone replacement, but currently they are being used specifically for soft tissue repair too. It is an exciting time in our field.
READ ALSO: The Glass Guy
What are some of the medical applications that you are considering?
WL: As a potential starting application [and the one we pitched], we plan on treating dentin hypersensitivity [sensitive teeth] at a much faster rate by having our glass block tubules in the dentin [a layer of the tooth] that links to the nerves and cause pain due to external stimulation [such as ice cream]. Other applications can include using our product as a bone filling material for small bone defects including those for dental surgery. There is also the focus on soft-tissue applications which I mentioned before but there is still a lot of research needed for these potential avenues.
SN: There is great flexibility in these materials in terms of their chemistry as well as physical properties. We’re hypothesizing that we could easily adjust these to meet a particular target application. Most of the research that Will has undertook so far is focused on mineralized tissues. We are targeting a faster and better way of healing of mineralized tissues because of what we have shown experimentally. That’s our immediate focus. In terms of re-mineralizing toothpaste, we think this is the best way to start realizing some of the potential products that we might have. As Will stipulated, in the background, we’d like to carry on exploring the potential application in terms of bone regeneration. Down the line, we also think there is great potential in soft tissue applications, but clearly we need to adjust the glasses both chemically and physically, which is what our current research is focused on.
What prompted you to participate in the McGill Dobson Cup?
WL: The McGill Dobson Cup has been on our minds for a while since we thought we had something unique – an actual product that could potentially improve the lives of people. I’m still a student, so I could make time to invest in this competition and take advantage of the McGill Dobson Centre workshops and mentoring available. The previous semester, I took the Basic Business Skills course offered through McGill SKILLSETS. That was kind of my first real exposure to the business world, and after that, I thought, “yeah, we could try this!”.
You won the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award at McGill Dobson Cup 2017. What does this award mean to you and how is it going to help you moving forward?
WL: Just to have the opportunity to present directly to a company like L’Oréal was amazing in itself and the fact that we got direct feedback from them was so helpful… and winning the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award is such great validation for us in establishing our startup. It will be very helpful going forward, to attract more funding as well to keep pursuing tissue engineering challenges. We’re very grateful that they wanted to sponsor this new award in this year’s McGill Dobson Cup.
SN: It’s a great boost, in that we were able to pitch our idea to L’Oréal and for them to think there is potential in this. A great privilege and endorsement for us.
READ ALSO: Announcing the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award
From this experience, what have you learned about entrepreneurship and business in general that you didn’t know before?
WL: Everything! I’m realizing that it’s a totally different mindset than academia. It doesn’t really matter if you have the best product – that’s just part of the equation. It’s also about what market you’re going for, who you’re partnering with, and how you are going sell it. Having an idea is just the starting point. It’s what do you do with that idea after that matters the most… I’d say the best way to learn about entrepreneurship is to just do it. You have to go through the experience. We’re still at the very first tiny steps of going down that path, and I’m sure we will learn a lot more in the coming months and years. I feel very fortunate that I got this opportunity and try something new this far into my PhD. Prior to this, I was really focused on finishing my PhD, but the McGill Dobson Cup has been an amazing learning experience that will definitely be useful as we continue with this startup.
What are some of the differences that you have noticed between business and academia?
WL: I think that the difference between science, engineering and business is that science comes up with the most ideal solution, engineering makes it practical, and business helps get it to the people. We want results in academia, of course, but business is about who, what, and how do we market this to a certain population? This is an ideal progression from my academia background and a great learning experience. Having gone through this first entrepreneurial experience and getting further encouragement and validation from this competition and L’Oréal is great motivation to keep pushing on and hopefully realizing the main goal which is to improve the lives of many people.
… the difference between science, engineering and business is that science comes up with the most ideal solution, engineering makes it practical, and business helps get it to the people.
How was your experience pitching at the McGill Dobson Cup?
WL: Pitching at the semi-finals was a little nerve-wracking: Basically, they opened the door to this tiny room, you walk in, the slides are already up on the screen, everyone is staring at you, and then it’s time to start talking. It reminded me of Dragon’s Den!
I also wish I had recorded my first practice pitch with the McGill Dobson Centre student volunteers – it was so bad! Coming from a science background… I was like, “look at this graph, look at how cool this material is…” and the students basically said “yeah… no, you should not do any of that,” but in a nice way. Having all five students essentially say “no” reset my thinking and really made me approach it from a business perspective. I honestly think that if I didn’t go to that pitch practice workshop, it would have been really difficult for us to make it past the semi-finals.
SN: I have been working with Will for five years now and I have always been genuinely very impressed by his work and the standard of his presentations from a scientific perspective. But I have to say, when it came to the McGill Dobson Cup, it was a different page. I was very impressed to see that pitch as well. I thought it was great and I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly, the McGill Dobson Cup steered him in the right direction – the business and entrepreneurial angle. It’s a real interesting combination of skills that he now has.
… encouragement and validation from [McGill Dobson Cup] and L’Oréal is great motivation to keep pushing on and hopefully realizing the main goal which is to improve the lives of many people.
What were some of the resources that were helpful to you as new entrepreneurs?
WL: All the McGill Dobson Centre student volunteers were very helpful and the workshops provided were essential. The Public Speaking Workshop was really great as that is an area that can always use improvement for me. The How to Pitch your Startup Workshop was really useful in helping with crafting a good pitch. The Q&A feedback from the semi-finals really got us thinking about new approaches for our pitch as well. I kept in contact with some of the judges and the advice they provided was very useful going to the finals.
For the finals, I revamped the presentation with the feedback we received and I practiced the pitch much more than I did for the semi-finals. We were also lucky enough to get feedback from the McGill Commercialization office. Since they are the ones who have seen an idea go to market, they gave really specific advice on what an investor would want to see. The fact is that we asked for feedback, and if we had not asked, we would not be where we are now. I’d also like to thank Showan for pursuing this with me since this is not a typical graduate school thing to do, especially in the sciences.
SN: The idea was to try and get an insight into angles that we don’t have expertise in. As Will mentioned, Dr. Mark Weber from McGill Commercialization and Ms. Katya Marc from the Faculty of Engineering provided great feedback. It’s been a very interesting learning exercise.
What’s next for BG Therapeutics?
SN: First, I look forward to Will completing his PhD.
WL: Me too [laughs]. Besides the thesis, we have this great award, some momentum, and the technology. What we need right now is mentorship. We’re trying to link with entrepreneurs, alumni, etc. to start making these connections before we really start going towards a defined path.
SN: In particular, we are looking for mentors who have done something similar to what we’re trying to achieve, in terms of technology, product, and certain market segments… That’s what we’re seeking. We believe in the product and it has huge potential. Obviously, just because you have a product, you don’t have all the solutions. So, you have to think how to move forward. This strategy is very important and that strategy can only be helped along with people who have done this before.
There is a lot to learn in terms of the business process and we’re willing to listen to people who know. As Will pointed out, it’s great to have all the resources available to us. We’re also willing to listen to people who know the business aspect, of course. That’s why mentorship is important.
We are also fortunate to be in the Faculty of Engineering because there is a drive for entrepreneurial interest and there are people associated with the Faculty and former graduates who have become entrepreneurs who are willing to commit some time in terms of mentoring.
WL: We want to maximize [the L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award] and the momentum we have now but we are going to proceed cautiously. This is all new to us for now, but hopefully in five years we’ll at least have a stand-alone company, some investment, and maybe a few licensing agreements to allow us to keep pursuing tissue engineering challenges and improve the quality of life for many people.
Speaking to the science and engineering community, if you have an idea, put a business plan together and go out there and try to pitch it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
WL: It would be great if more scientists and engineers participated in programs like the McGill Dobson Cup. Speaking to the science and engineering community, if you have an idea, put a business plan together and go out there and try to pitch it. You’ll learn more about your idea by receiving constructive criticism from different fields than if you just keep it within your academic field.
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story and congratulations on winning the very first L’Oréal-Dobson Startup Award!