Rafaela Andrade’s grandfather built a small cookware maker into a consumer goods behemoth, rising from a poor, Brazilian neighbourhood to become one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the city of Cabo de Santo Agostinho.
His granddaughter hopes to build on his success by combining her scientific acumen with business skills she learned from Dalhousie University’s Lab2Market research commercialization training program.
“I always want to translate my research to the public and bridge the gap between science and business,” she said in an interview. “I really believe that with knowledge, insights and trying to bridge that gap we can improve the lives of a lot of people by taking the research out of the lab and into society.”
Andrade is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dalhousie University professor James Fawcett. She is using mice to study muscle development and neuromuscular disorders.
Her grandfather grew up in a community so poor, Andrade said, that when he met her grandmother, the house they lived in had dirt floors. He started his business by selling pots and pans door-to-door, sometimes walking as much as 30 kilometres a day to regions where buyers were more plentiful.
He eventually grew his company into a business-to-business sales giant. In the process, he developed a reputation as a philanthropist, which Andrade said cemented in her mind the idea that business could be not just a profit-making enterprise, but a force for social good.
“Everybody knew him,” she said. “And he also was very generous. So, the money wasn't just the power to purchase things. It was actually to do things. That was key for him, doing good with the money.”
But when he was 50, he died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease — a form of dementia — helping to spark Andrade’s interest in medical science.
When she immigrated to Canada in 2009 to pursue a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, she focused initially on creating better cancer treatments. That work also marked her first involvement in the commercialization of science, when she helped run pre-clinical trials for a cancer treatment from a major pharmaceutical company.
“They sent a couple of drugs that they had developed and we tested those drugs using our preclinical model,” she said.
“We finished the research with very good results, and it was published a few years ago. They ended up pursuing clinical studies with the results that we obtained from the preclinical [trials].”
Her pivot to focus on muscle development was inspired by the experience of having her first child. After gaining significant weight during her pregnancy, she set out on a course of healthy living and exercise that kindled her interest in physical fitness.
“I lost about 60 pounds from my first pregnancy,” she said. “I started to think more about the importance of muscle health and an active lifestyle to prevent muscle weakness and injuries related to aging, and most importantly to be able to continue as long as possible to do everything that we enjoy right now.”
When she finished her PhD, she moved to her current role at the Fawcett Lab, where she began studying muscles on the molecular level, as well as working on drawing connections between muscle health and abnormal patterns of movement.
That work gave her the idea to search for molecules called biomarkers in blood and urine that could indicate when a test subject's muscles were atrophying -- that is, shrinking.
Andrade is staying mum about the details to protect trade secrets, but she is contemplating two possible ways to extract and analyze bodily fluids from human patients without the need to send samples to a laboratory. She said this will be “the first non-invasive and accessible muscle atrophy test.”
Joining the Lab2Market program, for which Andrade was the team’s entrepreneurial lead, was the result of a series of conversations she had with then-PhD student Dylan Deska-Gauthier, who graduated in July.
Together, the pair decided to seek help identifying commercial use cases for the technology.
Lab2Market walks researchers and aspiring entrepreneurs through the process of customer discovery and finding product-market fit. Andrade said over the course of the eight-week program, she spoke with about 100 potential users in the Americas and Europe.
From their customer discovery work, she and her team concluded that one area in which their in-development test could be useful is physiotherapy. Current techniques for tracking the health of patients’ muscles rely on imprecise measurements of how much force they can exert. This makes it difficult for therapists to monitor patients’ progress and sometimes leaves the patients frustrated by a lack of clarity.
“Right now, the therapist sees physical changes within six to eight weeks from beginning the treatment,” said Andrade. “And we believe that we'll be able to detect changes prior to that.
“With our product, they will have a specific measurement of muscle state that they will be able to use to develop better therapy plans.”
With a clearer understanding of their target market and confirmation that they were developing technology that medical service providers would want to buy, the team incorporated their company in April of this year. They dubbed it Myomar Molecular.
Andrade is now acting CEO, but she hopes to soon be replaced by a permanent chief executive with more business experience.
“I really love the science,” she said. “So, I see myself with a role where I am a scientist and I can give support with the technical challenges in the lab and also have a voice on the business side.”
She and her colleagues are also now enrolled in Ready2Launch -- a second program from Dal Innovates that focuses on helping entrepreneurs prepare to commercialize research for which they have already identified a target market. Her fellow Lab2Market alum, ag-tech researcher Raphael Ofoe, is part of the same cohort.
By fall, Andrade hopes to begin raising money from investors in preparation for human trials of the biomarker-reading technology.
“Because all the research that has been done so far was in animal models, we have a proof-of-concept in the animals,” she said. “Therefore, we need to move into human trials... And then, as soon as we prove that we can detect the biomarkers and correlate them with muscle atrophy in humans, then we are going to move into the regulatory path to gain approval for large-scale clinical trials, and eventually, commercialization.”
The Lab2Market Program is a 16-week program to help researchers validate their ideas with the purpose of finding business/commercial value. The program is delivered by Dal Innovates and based on similar programs that have found success in other parts of the world, but with a Canadian twist.
Check out our previous articles about Lab2Market participants: