Live and learn: Albert Friesen

Medicure Inc.'s CEO on the challenges of Canadian biotech.

I grew up in Kane, Manitoba. Population: 33. I lived there until I went to university at 18. When I left — three of us went to university — it went down to 30. And it's probably about 20 now.

My father was a farmer, so I grew up in the farming community, and there were six kids in our family — three boys, three girls.

My parents only left the province once in 18 years. They went to British Columbia on vacation, and I went along. And that was the only trip outside the province in 18 years.

My Grade 11 teacher was really the one that sparked my interest in chemistry. As of then, I knew I wanted to be a chemist.

For summer work, I worked at the sewage-treatment plant where the City of Winnipeg tests water samples.

About a year or so after I started my PhD in biochemistry, two physicians came to the lab where I was at and said they had read about a new way of making an Rh antibody, a product that prevented Rh disease, or the destruction of fetal red-blood cells, in newborns. They thought they needed a protein chemist. That's how I got involved in the business. I was 23 years old. It was a new and exciting venture.

We started clinical trials in 1975. One of the first 1,200 patients was my wife, so it protected one of our babies. Now my three daughters, who each had three babies, have each been taking WinRho.

I never did an MBA, but I was quite active in trying to learn the business and marketing side. Retrospectively, the entrepreneurial spirit was there as a teenager, because I did a number of things even back at the farm.

My father died in a farm accident when I was 17. So my brother and I really looked after the farm. We were quite independent and self-reliant.

I'm not the best scientist. So I can't say science is my first love. To stay on top of, and be the best in, a peer-reviewed, specific scientific area is extremely demanding. One has to be very singularly focused on that.

When you're applying the science to a product, you have to have a broader vision. You need to know how to access that technology to apply it to the drug so it can be approved and become a product. That's what I love to do.

My singular goal with Medicure has been to get that approval. Our goal right now is to complete Phase 3 by early 2008. And with fast-tracking, which means the FDA can give us approval in six months, we could get approval by the end of 2008.

Cardiology is the No. 1 drug market; it's still the No. 1 killer. There are fewer biotech companies in cardiology than there are in AIDS and cancer.

In drug development, one of the things they say is, 'Kill the bad dogs early.' A lot of times, the drugs don't work. Interestingly enough, I'm not sure how true that saying is. There are a lot of drugs that are approved that don't work all that well, and there are a lot of drugs that work really well that didn't get approved.

I am very optimistic about what we can do in Canada, and in Manitoba. We do have very good science. We do have very dedicated, committed employees. We've had challenges in making the transition from idea to product, and I think that's where we should focus, with more of an entrepreneurial focus.

In the United States, if a biotech company fails, investors say they learned more about it and they view it as an opportunity. In Canada, there's a tendency to dump them. But if you look at investment history, in most cases you make money by hanging in for the long-term.

Albert (Bert) Friesen


Born May 19, 1947, in Winkler, Man.

CEO, Medicure Inc.; biochemist and avid curler

1971: Became the first employee of Winnipeg Rh Institute, where he developed a drug to prevent Rh disease in newborns.

1984: Started ABI Biotechnology Inc., which was eventually acquired by Toronto's Apotex Inc. in an unsolicited takeover.

1986: Chaired, and was founding director, of the Industrial Biotechnology Association of Canada, now BIOTECanada.

1997: Founded Medicure Inc., a Winnipeg-based biotech company focused on developing cardiovascular drugs.

2005: Received the Order of Manitoba for his pioneering work in the field of biotechnology in the province.