Mickael Dang, a PhD student from the Shoichet Lab, helps lead Synakis, a company that develops SYNGEL, a hyaluronan-based hydrogel as a novel biomimetic vitreous substitute for the treatment of retinal detachment. Building off this work, Synakis also plans to create a pipeline of products to solve challenges around the leading causes of blindness such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. The following Q&A is a story of entrepreneurship and the origins of Synakis.
Tell me about your grad research and how it inspired your spin-off company.
Coming from Paris (France), I’m currently completing my third-year doctoral degree in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry at the Shoichet Lab. My research project focuses on the development of a hydrogel-nanoparticle for the treatment of chronic glaucoma, which is one of the leading causes of blindness.
Who else is involved in your research project?
The company is related but not primarily based on my research project.
Who else is involved in your spin-off company?
A former postdoctoral fellow from the Shoichet Lab, Dr. Alexander Baker is the inventor of hydrogel behind Synakis. SYNGEL was developed in the Shoichet Lab led by University Professor Molly Shoichet. Her lab has and continues to have a tremendous impact on developing technologies for ocular and brain diseases. Additionally, we are working with Dr. Robert Devenyi, a vitreoretinal surgeon and professor of ophthalmology and vision sciences at the University of Toronto. Along with us, Dr. Jonathan Labriola is a research associate in the Shoichet Lab and is currently focusing on the delivery of novel therapeutic proteins for retinal degenerative disorders, using SYNGEL. Dr. Adam Forman is a postdoctoral researcher who is scaling the production of SYNGEL to facilitate its commercialization, and developing SYNGEL as a vitreous substitute.
Who funds your research project? Are they also partners in your company?
The Krembil foundation is currently funding my research project on developing a hydrogel nanoparticle strategy for the treatment of chronic glaucoma. Regarding the R&D behind SYNGEL, it was funded by the Krembil foundation and the Department of Defense.
We do not have strategic partners per se for Synakis yet. However, we are currently in close contact with big pharmaceutical companies such as Alcon and Bausch&Lomb who are the leaders in the market of vitreous substitutes.
How have you been able to secure funding for your company and what strategies have you found to be successful?
Synakis participated to the first pitch competition at the TERMIS-AM 2023 conference and won first place, thus securing $1,000 USD for the company. Additionally, we will be competing at the pitch competition during Building the BioTech Venture (BBTV) hosted by Medicine by Design (MbD) on May 2 to potentially secure more funding for solidifying our business model and regulatory strategies. Next, we will approach VCs and angel investors to help us create a “good manufacturing practices (GMP)” grade product.
Can you describe any collaborations or partnerships that have been instrumental in the success of your company to date?
Collaborations with key opinion leaders in the field of vitreoretinal surgery have been key for us to understand the clinical need behind current treatments for patients suffering from retinal detachment.
What challenges have you faced in starting and running your own company while still being a graduate student?
Being a graduate student and being part of company can be a daunting challenge, as it requires a great deal of time management, prioritization, and discipline. Some of the challenges include prioritizing my tasks to meet the academic and business demands, and networking as I don’t have much time to go to networking events and build relationships with potential clients or investors. Managing my time effectively is crucial to ensure that I can meet deadlines and stay on top of my academic research while also developing the business. Additionally, trying to balance the demands of graduate school and a new business can be stressful if not managed properly. Thus, I have been focusing on taking care of myself and prioritizing self-care by exercising and connecting with friends from France.
How do you balance your time between running the company and completing your graduate studies?
Every Sunday, I dedicate two hours to organize my upcoming week and to time-box mostly anything I will need to complete during the week, including experiments, data analysis, lab meetings, sport sessions, and business meetings. Additionally, Synakis’ team is meeting weekly to ensure a continuous progress of the business.
How do you see your company evolving in the future and what are your long-term goals for it?
I hope to see Synakis grow over the next few years and SYNGEL entering in human clinical trials. Being passionate about research and entrepreneurship, I would like to continue the academic career in parallel of being an entrepreneur to ensure the translation of promising technologies in the field of drug delivery and regenerative medicine.
How has your academic training prepared you for the entrepreneurial aspects of running a company?
Conducting a PhD research project has been equipping me with the knowledge and skills necessary to identify market opportunities and develop innovative solutions that meet consumer needs. Through coursework and practical experiences, I gained an understanding of fundamental business concepts such as marketing, finance, and management, as well as develop expertise in the field of translational medicine, specifically for ophthalmic products. In addition, being a graduate student at the University of Toronto provided an easy-access to valuable networking opportunities and connections with mentors who have experience in entrepreneurship, such as my PhD supervisor, University Professor Molly Shoichet. Finally, it helped me develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital for entrepreneurs, enabling me to identify obstacles, adapt to changing market conditions, and make informed decisions that drive business success.
What advice would you give to other graduate students who are considering starting their own companies based on their research?
My advice to other graduate students is to “focus on the mission.” Specifically, graduate students should focus on the purpose of their research, specifically on the WHY of the project. Science is my primary passion, and serves as the foundation for everything we accomplish. Without understanding the WHY of a research project, we would have nothing to translate or commercialize, and no progress to communicate to the world. Once the WHY is clearly defined, the HOW will allow your research to potentially become companies.