“The Future Is Now” With Bill Radvak & Fotis Georgiadis

For now, I intend to make a difference in the world by using my skillset and experience in continuing to build ventures similar to NervGen — ones that will have a positive impact and will also energize and captivate me. Over time, I have considered putting my efforts into more of what is considered mainstream […]

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For now, I intend to make a difference in the world by using my skillset and experience in continuing to build ventures similar to NervGen — ones that will have a positive impact and will also energize and captivate me. Over time, I have considered putting my efforts into more of what is considered mainstream charity and community initiatives, particularly around mental health, but for now, I am keeping it simple and building solutions that have a positive effect on the world. One area I am poking around for opportunities in is renewable energy — again. While there are historically more failures than successes, there is much to be done and many ways we can improve on how we treat the world.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Radvak.

Bill is the Executive Chairman and Co-founder of NervGen Pharma Corp., a biotech company dedicated to creating innovative solutions for the treatment of nerve damage and neurodegenerative diseases. The Company is initially focusing on developing drugs for the treatment of spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Radvak, who identifies himself as a start-up “junky”, has been at the helm of seven different entrepreneurial companies and on the board of directors of numerous others. He was the co-founder and CEO of Response Biomedical Corp., a medical device company, which he led from its inception to a 100+ employee sales and manufacturing operation. He’s an avid athlete who enjoys a variety of sports and activities, and is now focusing on both alpine and backcountry skiing while maintaining a yoga practice. Radvak received a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Mining Engineering from the University of British Columbia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

There really is no simple single story that explains how I arrived at doing what I do. When asked what I do, I generally respond with “I help start-ups get going”, which is quite broad and somewhat nebulous. How I went from graduating with a degree in mining engineering to co-founding and building a biotech company also isn’t a simple story. What was clear was that, even before I received my degree, working in an engineering office or any structured environment wasn’t for me.

I actually experienced a biochemical reaction, similar to claustrophobia, when I considered the prospect of existing in an engineering office day after day. Once I graduated, I was offered a position to work in a mine as a design engineer. I declined that offer and counter-offered to work in operations as a shift boss; unfortunately, they didn’t have a position available. I knew intuitively that I needed to be in a dynamic situation surrounded by people taking on new and diverse challenges.

I migrated to mineral exploration for a short period of time which presented both challenge and change, and that quickly shifted to helping build junior venture companies. Shortly thereafter, along came an opportunity to develop a novel medical diagnostic test. Our group decided to take it on and when we looked around the table to see who would fill the CEO role — I had my first appointment as the leader of Response Biomedical at the tender age of 29. This consumed much of my life for the next fifteen years.

Fast forwarding, after leading a number of ventures, I decided to move from the C-suite office and leverage my knowledge and experience in an executive chair-type role — focusing first on finding opportunities that capture and energize me, and then finding the right people to help create strategies and business plans, and secure the early rounds of financing. I am most comfortable in the very early stages of company building, which makes most business people nervous. I am excited to now apply all of that knowledge and experience and do my part in making NervGen successful.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

A surreal experience I had was with my first start-up, Response Biomedical. We invented and commercialized an FDA-approved dipstick-type test technology that, when combined with a small instrument, would provide lab quality results in minutes at the point-of-care. While the bread-and-butter tests on the platform were for cardiac markers to help determine if there was evidence of a heart attack, we stretched the platform opportunistically wherever we were confident we had a major technical competitive edge. We created a leading test for West Nile virus, a number of biological warfare tests, as we well as a test for H5N1 influenza. In fact, I imagine if I was still leading Response Biomedical, I would have the team scrambling to try and develop a supersensitive point-of-care test for Coronavirus.

After the anthrax attacks and the biological threat from Iraq in 2003, Response Biomedical quickly created supersensitive environmental tests for anthrax, ricin and botox (botulinum toxin). The results were so superior to the competition that the United Nations biological warfare inspectors armed themselves with these tests. At the request of the UN, we visited the NY headquarters to train the inspection teams that were preparing for deployment to Iraq with the first wave of military assault troops. Remember, some of these leading global biological inspectors had been to Iraq previously and detected biological warfare agents and production facilities; everyone believed they were going to find biological weapons. It was quite an experience collaborating with these inspectors, but then to learn directly from them after their return from Iraq of their utter surprise that Saddam Hussein had destroyed these biological capabilities while at the same time was threatening and antagonizing the western world — needless to say, it was vexing times post-9/11. Being that close to this rapidly evolving, extremely dangerous, politically hypersensitive event, which had an ending that none of the inspectors expected, was a truly unique experience.

Can you tell us about the “bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that NervGen is working on? How do you think that will help people?

In layman’s terms, we are convinced that our technology does one simple, yet foundational, task — it allows the body’s nervous system to repair itself. Is it a panacea for the nervous system? That may seem farfetched, but panacea appears to be the best word to describe it. So far, our technology has shown impressive, and in some cases unprecedented, results in animal studies to date, including trauma to the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, multiple sclerosis, cardiac arrythmia and stroke. We will also be conducting research and development of our technology to determine if it could generate new treatments in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

The platform technology underlying our lead compound, NVG-291, was developed in the laboratory of neuroscientist Dr. Jerry Silver, a renowned spinal cord injury and regenerative medicine researcher and Professor of Neurosciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Silver’s research focused on the glial scar, which forms at the site of a nerve injury, with the primary purpose of locking down the site of injury to stop further damage and protect the nervous system. Dr. Silver changed the foundation of the understanding of the nervous system by demonstrating that a gooey protein in this scar, called chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan (“CSPG”), is the primary impediment to nerve repair as it inhibits the damaged nerves from regenerating, repairing or making new connections. Dr. Silver, together with scientists at Harvard University, then identified a key neural receptor, called protein tyrosine phosphatase sigma (“PTPσ”), that binds with the CSPG protein in the scar. The binding of this key receptor (PTPσ) with the gooey protein in the scar (CSPG) is the main reason why nerve repair was not occurring.

This PTPσ-CSPG interaction initiates a complex biological cascade which has multiple negative effects when there is nerve damage. NervGen’s compound is designed to switch off these negative, inhibitory effects of the PTPσ signalling, allowing the normal reparative mechanisms to complete the healing process. Our drug, NVG-291, binds preferentially to the PTPσ receptor, which in animal models appears to release trapped nerves and prevents new sprouting nerve axons from being trapped in the scar, allowing regrowth in previously highly inhibited areas, and allowing the formation of new synapses.

Because the glial scar with this CSPG protein is naturally increased after injury throughout the body, our technology’s mechanism of action could have effects across a broad expanse of traumatic injuries and neurodegenerative diseases.

As Dr. Silver continued his research on spinal cord injuries, a tremendous amount of data, from both internal and independent sources, has been produced which supports the original findings that NVG-291 has achieved dramatic results in preclinical models. As far as we know, no other drug or treatment has come close to the efficacy observed in the most recent independent study from the University of Cologne where at the highest dose level, approximately half the treated animals recovered almost full function after a severe spinal cord injury.

NervGen is planning to commence Phase 1 clinical trials by the end of 2020 which will include the usual safety studies on human subjects. We will follow this with Phase 2 human clinical trials in both spinal cord injury and MS patients which we hope to start in the second half of 2021.

Recently, we decided to move forward with a research and development program for Alzheimer’s disease. We made the decision to undertake this initiative after three key opinion leaders reviewed our program and advised us to move forward given 1) the novelty of our approach, 2) the multiple modes of action of our compound, and 3) the growing body of academia that supports our thesis. I recommend that you read a terrific article in Forbes.com which featured how NervGen’s compound could address treating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

In parallel, we are stepping up our business development efforts as we believe that the technology, the upcoming clinical trial programs and the numerous applications we are pursuing presents an opportunity that should be of strong interest to prospective partners.

How do you think this might change the world?

If NervGen is successful in commercializing a drug that allows the body’s nervous system to repair itself, it is hard to conceptualize the impact on the world. I receive the queries that come through NervGen’s website so I have seen the hundreds of messages from people desperate for some help. And I am not using the word “desperate” lightly as there are no known drugs approved for nerve regeneration or remyelination.

A treatment for spinal cord injury alone would improve the lives of so many people desperate for help. Currently, a person suffering from a spinal cord injury will have their condition stabilize after a few months, after which the vast majority of patients will experience only minor or no improvement no matter how much effort is put into physiotherapy or other treatments. In one of our preclinical studies, there was a dose dependent recovery of bladder function, and at the two highest doses all animals had some type of recovery of bladder function. If we had no other benefit but bladder function recovery, that would be a tremendous victory as so many people suffering from spinal cord injuries are resigned to catheters and urine collection bags as part of their daily lives. And, the nerve area that controls bladder function is also responsible for both the bowel and sexual functions. The improvement of a patient’s quality of life would be dramatic in a number of critical ways.

Multiple sclerosis drugs have done a good job of stopping the immune system from attacking and degrading the nervous system, but they are not capable of repairing the damage created. With the remyelination and plasticity modes of action of NVG-291, we aim to help repair damage that has been done to the myelin (the protective sheath surrounding the nerve fibers) and give tremendous relief to the millions of people who are suffering.

Theoretically, if we are successful in our current programs, NervGen could potentially be successful in treating any disease that results in nerve damage, either as a result of an acute injury, or as a result of neurodegenerative disease. In addition to spinal cord injury, MS and Alzheimer’s disease, this also includes ALS, Parkinson’s, FTD, epilepsy and even traumatic brain injury. There is a lot of work to be done, but the potential impact of our technology is truly breathtaking.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

We have looked at the impact our drug may have on the function of the scar that forms at the site of nerve damage. It is clear that although the scar that forms after an injury inhibits the repair mechanisms of the nervous system, it also plays a vital and long-term role. The scar acts as a potent barrier to protect the wound and create a wall to constrain inflammation and isolate the lesion from affecting the remaining healthy tissue. It also acts to ensure that the nerve connections remaining after the injury are preserved. NVG-291 doesn’t appear to interfere with this important natural process, but instead seems to allow the nervous system to repair itself through and around the scar.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to take on the challenge of commercializing this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

In early 2016, Codi, the daughter-in-law of our co-founder Dr. Harold Punnett, and mother to his three grandchildren, suffered a tragic accident during a site visit of the renovations being done on the family’s home. She fell into a 10-foot construction hole and the trauma to her spinal cord resulted in Codi becoming a complete T-11 paraplegic.

As reported in New Mobility magazine, Harold embarked on a neuroscience literature search as part of his effort to find any way to improve Codi’s condition. He found there were no therapeutics available to promote nerve regeneration, but he did come across the promising technology invented by Dr. Silver that had the potential to revolutionize the treatment of nerve damage. So, after a long period of research and due diligence, we created NervGen with one simple goal — to commercialize this incredible technology.

There was no singular “tipping point”, but during the extended due diligence period there were a number of standout “aha” moments that resulted in the decision to take on this crusade. One of the most emotional moments for me was when we met with half a dozen leaders of the Rick Hansen Institute, a Canadian-based not-for-profit organization that drives innovation in spinal cord injury research. Upon learning about Dr. Silver’s compound dramatically improving bladder control function in the animal studies, one wheelchair-bound gentleman at the conference table suddenly interrupted our presentation and stated in no uncertain terms that he has adapted to life in a wheelchair so he can get around and have access to what he needs, but if NervGen gave him back control of his bladder, that would be freedom for him. It was such a stunning statement and, to me, a personal recognition of my level of naivete on what people with spinal cord injury endure. That was a clear aha moment that truly impacted our deliberations on moving forward to commercialize Dr. Silver’s breakthrough science.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Simply put — perseverance. We have taken NervGen public, built a great management team and will continue to finance the company as needed. We will push aggressively to get the drug into clinical trials where the “rubber really hits the road” and we will find out its effect on a human body.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or persons who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

All along the way, there have been a number of people that have stepped in to participate in what may seem small, inconsequential ways, but who have greatly impacted my confidence and drive as an entrepreneur.

When I was running Response Biomedical in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was travelling to Toronto off and on for financing meetings and was introduced to a gentleman, Kevin McKenna, who offered up space in his office whenever I needed it. I took advantage of it as needed, more so that I could have the opportunity to visit with him briefly to get words of encouragement and guidance. His office became a home away from home for me. While he may have viewed it as simply lending out an office to me a few times a year, to me it represented so much more, it was a sanctuary.

When I was running another start-up, American Vanadium, and was striving to introduce industrial scale energy storage systems, I was introduced to Bob Catell, the previous Chairman of both National Grid, US and the United States Energy Association. He was held in such high regard by both the traditional oil and the renewable energy sectors, as well as general corporate America; not simply because of his professional achievements, but notably because he is one of the finest gentlemen in the world as expressed by all that have had the opportunity to spend time with him. Again, I was surprised with the generosity of the time he spent with me considering his incredible professional and community service workload. And, I was stunned and thrilled when I was able to convince him to join American Vanadium’s board of directors, even though he was being pulled in many directions and this was one of the last things he needed to spend time on. His support of me individually, and for the important energy storage initiative, was humbling.

To me, it isn’t about that one mentor or one guiding force of a person, but about a good number of people that see the spark and understand the hard road in front of an entrepreneur and who takes the time to let you know they believe you can make things happen.

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world?

For now, I intend to make a difference in the world by using my skillset and experience in continuing to build ventures similar to NervGen — ones that will have a positive impact and will also energize and captivate me. Over time, I have considered putting my efforts into more of what is considered mainstream charity and community initiatives, particularly around mental health, but for now, I am keeping it simple and building solutions that have a positive effect on the world. One area I am poking around for opportunities in is renewable energy — again. While there are historically more failures than successes, there is much to be done and many ways we can improve on how we treat the world.

Do you have a mantra?

Theodore Roosevelt once said that “the best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” And a colleague of mine once gave me advice I never forgot and which I have often repeated to others, “start-ups are not a battle but a long war, and when building your team, ask yourself if each one will stay in the trench with you when the fighting gets bitter”. Great advice for building a start-up where it is inevitable that the times will get tough, the stress will escalate and the future can look bleak — but that’s the time when the team must dig in and support each other.

So, a mantra of mine is only work with good people.

An example of that mantra was when we were filling an R&D position at Response Biomedical. One candidate didn’t have the requisite experience. But she was such a standout person and a clear fit with our values that we created a position for her working on special projects, knowing she would be of great value. That was around 2005 — now skip to today where she has been the CEO of Response Biomedical since 2015.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote I rely on is “bad news is good news”. In start-ups, bad news is a very large part of the business. When creating and building, there are lots of mistakes to be made, wrong paths to take — let alone the saying often heard “s**t happens”. Those are givens. What is critical is how does one react, accept, inquire and course-correct. Bad news gives an opportunity to make changes and be successful.Of course, no one likes hearing bad news, but I say the phrase a lot so we don’t fear, hide, ignore or downplay bad news. One needs to face adversity quickly and honestly so it can be digested and acted upon so that positive movement can begin.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

NervGen is a public company (NGENF: OTCQX, NGEN: TSX.V) commercializing a potentially disruptive drug for the treatment of nerve damage and neurodegenerative diseases. This technology, licensed worldwide for all applications from Case Western Reserve University, was invented by Dr. Jerry Silver, a global expert on spinal cord research.

Our technology — possibly a panacea — allows the body’s nervous system to repair itself by limiting the endogenous inhibition of nerve repair that occurs as a result of scar formation. Over fifteen technical papers, many independent, have been peer-reviewed and published, and detail the multiple modes of action, including regeneration, remyelination, plasticity and autophagy. There is a great summary of these on our website (www.nervgen.com).

To date, our technology has shown impressive results in animal studies, including trauma to the spinal cord and peripheral nerves, multiple sclerosis, cardiac arrythmia and stroke. Our technology will also be studied to determine its possibility to generate new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

We have assembled a very talented management team with strong capabilities in drug development, clinical trials, partnering and finance to facilitate NervGen’s goal of addressing these huge markets that have clear unmet needs. NervGen is initially focusing on developing drugs for the treatment of spinal cord injury (~17,000 injuries per year in the U.S.) and the repair of damage from multiple sclerosis (~900,000 patients in the U.S.) while building a research program for Alzheimer’s disease (~5,800,000 patients in the US). We intend to initiate a Phase 1 clinical trial on human subjects by the end of 2020 and then initiate two Phase 2 studies in 2021 — one study in spinal cord patients, and another in patients with multiple sclerosis.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can visit our website, www.nervgen.com, or follow us on Twitter (@NervGenC) and LinkedIn (NervGen Pharma Corp.).

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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