Inventiveness for hire
World-changing molecules are being created and biomass mysteries solved at Snieckus Innovations, an innovative new venture that bridges the gap between academia and industry.
Dr. Victor Snieckus (Chemistry) is on an unusual quest: he’s looking for what he calls “challenging molecules.” Says Snieckus, “I’m asking clients to send us some.”
Snieckus, a world-renowned synthetic chemist, is the director of Snieckus Innovations (SI), a company that offers its services to custom synthesize molecules for pharmaceutical industry and academia.
“I don’t want any challenging molecules,” objects Michael Wells, SI’s executive director – who also serves as the manager of commercial development, life sciences, at PARTEQ Innovations, the University’s technology transfer office,. “I want compounds that I know our chemists can make, to guarantee that we earn money.” Snieckus smiles, “Ah, yes, but our chemists are all excellent and can make most any molecule!”
Welcome to SI, where leading-edge chemistry and commercialization meet. An unusual hybrid, SI is a unit of the Chemistry Department that functions as a commercial entity.
“SI began in 2010 out of a philanthropic gift of $1.25 million from Dr. Alfred Bader,” explains Wells. “The whole purpose of SI is to make a profit to funnel back into Vic’s fundamental research lab. That’s our goal.”
SI shifted into higher gear in October when it moved into its new laboratory at Innovation Park (IP) at Queen’s University. While fundamental research of the Snieckus group continues in Chernoff Hall, five SI chemists now work in the IP laboratory.
Snieckus says SI has a competitive advantage. “Organic synthesis is like five-star cooking, and we have the best cooks – the best synthetic organic chemists. Already we’ve solved a problem for a client, who told us that they’d been working a long time on the same molecules, without success.”
Snieckus himself is the driving force at SI says Wells. “Victor has 40 years of organic chemistry expertise; he’s internationally renowned, and he continues to consult with many global pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies. It comes down to Vic’s expertise and the experimental excellence of his SI group.”
Snieckus, the Bader Chair (Emeritus) in Organic Chemistry and the 2011 recipient of the Queen’s University Prize for Excellence in Research, is widely known for three major discoveries that turned into successful commercial products, enabling the development of new drugs and crop-enhancing agents. Research in the Snieckus labs is focused on aromatic compounds, a class of organic molecules that are present in 80 per cent of marketed drugs. Much of his work is related to boron, which he calls “the chemical element of the 21st century.” Boron compounds, in addition to being useful in synthesis of pharmaceuticals, are used as antifungal agents, detergents, in bulletproof vests, in emergency shutdown systems for nuclear reactors, and are now being developed as light-emitting devices and semi-conductors.
SI, in addition to working with pharmaceutical and other companies, is seeking academic partners. “We’re kind of like an octopus, where half of the arms are focused on industry, and the other half on academia,” Wells explains. “So we are open to collaborations with academics all over the planet if they’re interested in working with SI to test their compounds, or in accessing our library of 3,000 unique compounds for evaluation against the major diseases of the world.”
Wells notes that over its first year, SI doubled its revenues, tripled its quote numbers, and solidified relationships with major global agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies.
“Like many academics, I want to see the practical evolve from fundamental research. I want us to do science to the best of our abilities and contribute to the welfare of mankind.”
As to longer-term goals, the SI team members are in agreement: financial self-sufficiency, and the creation of research projects for the development of new drugs – preferably leveraging all the interdisciplinary expertise on campus – top the list.
Snieckus knows first-hand how commercializing his scientific discoveries can change society. “Like many academics, I want to see the practical evolve from fundamental research. I want us to do science to the best of our abilities and contribute to the welfare of mankind,” he says. “As for SI, I want it to be good for the Chemistry Department, the University and the community, and to see Dr. Bader’s grand generosity bear fruit.”
Surprisingly, Snieckus owns no patent rights to the products he creates. He is more interested in designing syntheses of molecules and sharing his research to help improve the availability of new medicines. He doesn’t care about financial wealth. “I have a roof over my head, food on my table, a closely-knit, caring family, and work that I love. What else do I need?” he says. But then he smiles and quickly adds, “Perhaps a bottle of wine and some good jazz once in a while.”