Humans of Alberta Innovation: Dr. Christian Jacob

Take a look at the people behind the research, product, company or groundbreaking discovery. The ASTech Foundation’s Humans of Alberta Innovation campaign shows a new side to Alberta’s fascinating innovation community — the human one.

Dr. Christian Jacob is the director of the LINDSAY Virtual Human Project, which won the 2015 Innovation in Information and Communications Technology Award. The LINDSAY team uses virtual imaging technologies to help teach human anatomy in new and exciting ways.

I’m Not a Typical Computer Scientist 

Growing up, I wanted to become a Latin teacher. I liked Latin as a very algorithmic language, almost mathematical.

I moved to Calgary in two stages. In 1996, I was looking for someone working in plant simulation because I did my PhD in plant growth programs. We would see how a tree grows, or how the petals fall off flowers and then combine it with an evolutionary program. I connected with a graphics prof at the University of Calgary and that brought me here as a post doctoral fellow. Then, the computer science department had openings which brought me to U of C in 1999 as an assistant professor. I was just going to try it out for two or three years to see how I liked it. I really liked the university and the colleagues; it was a young department and I found some good research projects. That’s why I stayed and why I’m still here.

I’m not a typical computer scientist; I’ve always looked at the computer as a think tool and nothing more. I was first interested in biology because of the brain. I did my diploma thesis on building artificial neural networks. I wanted to know how neurons work, how the brain works and how much of this can be transferred to computers as think tools, to help classify patterns and understand speech.

Eventually I got into simulating immune systems. Suddenly I was inside the body and looking at physiology and how the immune system reacts to viruses and bacteria. Then an offer came to start this LINDSAY Virtual Human Project which led me to work with medical students and researchers.

I’m a very graphical person: I must see and illustrate things. The constant development of technology has always fueled my interest in computer science. It went from different user interfaces where there’s just a mouse and a keyboard to touch screens and portable iPads that could react to my input.

When we ventured into 3D, we could put these augmented reality glasses on. Now we can literally enter digital worlds; and bring virtual worlds, that are trapped behind the screen, into the real world and combine them. All this technology innovation helped create the things I only imagined we could do a few years earlier.

With the LINDSAY Virtual Human Project, there’s always an opportunity to build the next prototype. Suddenly I had a project that was integrated into a medical school, and I had to really pay attention to the details regarding medical education, human physiology and anatomy. It’s still being used to train medical students at U of C, which is really cool. I also get to work with a lot of awesome people from other disciplines outside of computer science, including medical educators, physiologists, medical doctors, physicians and the artists and designers who make the program look good. That’s changed my life as a scientist, being on that inter-disciplinary side of computer science.

The Giant Walkthrough Brain added to that. Jay Ingram is a fabulous science communicator and working with him was a great experience. I had to rethink how to present content from a stage, not for an expert audience. Now we had to consider music, stage lighting, a script and we had to set up this giant walkthrough brain with hallways and signs, like a movie set. As a scientist, that was very exciting because I learned how to sell my science. We explained to people how the human brain works and then we told stories through the computer tool. This has changed my perspective on how to sell and promote science.

I’m excited to venture even more into story telling, especially around the human body; people learn well through stories. Now computer games are the vehicles to create engaging stories. In the end, I hope I can keep inspiring students.

Humans of Alberta Innovation: Chris Micetich

Take a look at the people behind the research, product, company or groundbreaking discovery. The ASTech Foundation’s Humans of Alberta Innovation campaign shows a new side to Alberta’s fascinating innovation community — the human one.

This week we introduce Chris Micetich, president and CEO of Fedora Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is the 2015 Outstanding Commercial Achievement in Alberta Science and Technology Award Winner. The small remote pharmaceutical team leveraged success into a $750m sale for life-saving drugs. 

All along the way, we had way more nay-sayers than yea-sayers

When I was a kid, I knew my father was a scientist but that was all I knew about his career. When I got to university, working in my father’s lab as a summer job, I started to understand more of what he was doing. It wasn’t until I joined him to create a new company and work alongside him that I truly understood the magnitude of his work.

My father invented a drug called Tazobactam, which is a beta lactamase inhibitor. It combines with an antibiotic to make that antibiotic more effective. He suffered a stroke in 2005 in Los Angeles and while in a coma in the hospital, he developed a lung infection. Under normal circumstances, this would kill any patient it effected. With my family all present, the nurse told us not to worry because they had this miracle drug called Tazobactam. I told the nurse that my father invented that drug. She didn’t believe me. But after confirming it, she posted articles about him everywhere. They called him Dr. Taz for the remainder of his time there.

I am passionate about a lot of things, including creating new drugs that will save lives. I also enjoy mentoring entrepreneurs to help take their business to the next level. I never really had an opportunity to pursue that passion until recently. My first year of university was in Science specializing in chemistry. It’s ironic that I really didn’t enjoy chemistry, but I’ve been running a chemistry-based company for 30 years! I joined my father in 1987 to help him start up a pharmaceutical company and I haven’t looked back since. Since that time, I’ve founded six different companies including the most recent, Fedora Pharmaceuticals.

In 2010, when we were looking for a new discovery program to chase, I had my team focus on a new beta lactamase inhibitor that would potentially one day replace my father’s drug. We came up with something found to be much better than Tazobactam. I spun the project into a new company, raised money, advanced the drug into the clinic and then signed the largest licensing deal in Canadian biomedical history to Hoffman-La Roche. Phase 2 clinical trials are underway and all is looking promising. We hope to see our drug on the market in due course.

It was very rewarding for our team that was involved in that deal, particularly since some were also involved in the discovery of Tazobactam. Discovering a drug and going right through development to market and then save lives is incredible!  We take great pride in that and there’s not much more you can ask for in this industry.

Taking an early stage program that originated in my head, convincing a research team to buy into the vision and then convincing people to invest was not easy. All along the way, we had way more nay-sayers than yea-sayers. It was a very difficult but rewarding experience to convince people to buy in to what we were trying to accomplish and then actually deliver. I hope before I retire to discover and license another life-saving drug for a big pharmaceutical company to take to market.