Change Agent

Change Agents 2016: Kevin Chen, Hyasynth Bio

Canadian Business: Change Agents 2016
Kevin Chen
Kevin Chen (Portrait by Neil Mota/Rodeo Production)

Kevin Chen

CEO & Co-founder, Hyasynth Bio

Follow: @BKevinChen
Follow: @hyasynthbio

Why he matters: Bringing the benefits of marijuana to the masses

Kevin Chen didn’t much care for the solitary life of a lab worker. In 2014, eight months into a biochemistry graduate program at McGill University, he dropped out, flew to Ireland and enrolled in a summer-long biotech accelerator. The mission behind his shift into entrepreneurship? To create synthetic pot. Well, sort of.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Chen is a co-founder of Hyasynth Bio, a Montreal-based startup working to bring genetically engineered cannabinoids—that is, the chemical components found in marijuana—to the pharmaceutical market. Hyasynth takes genes from marijuana plants and inserts them into a genetically engineered yeast genome, creating large quantities of the chemical compounds. Essentially, Chen and his team work with DNA the way other tech companies work with code. “You can edit and format it in different ways,” he says. Their big hope is that these different combinations of cannabinoids will prove more effective than plant-based pot when it comes to treating conditions such as epilepsy.

There are clear benefits to Hyasynth’s approach, says Vincent Martin, Concordia University’s research chair in microbial engineering and synthetic biology, who worked with Chen and his co-founders in the firm’s early days. “You get away from having to grow the plant, which can be difficult and expensive. You’re able to control the chemistry much better. And you can make a lot more [of a certain cannabinoid] than the plant would naturally make.”

A soft-spoken “biohacker” whose earnest and all-encompassing enthusiasm for his work contrasts with the self-promotion that characterizes many who start businesses in such a buzzy field, 23-year-old Chen is aiming to fill a gap between the work being done in academic research and what the pharmaceutical industry needs. “The main thing that put me on this path was the simple idea of using biology to help solve problems,” he says.

As more people turn to marijuana to combat illnesses, they are looking for ways to consume it that don’t involve firing up a joint. Take children with epilepsy, for example: Cannabinoids can help manage the condition, but few parents want to take their kid to a dispensary or deal with clinical trials associated with new treatments. Hyasynth aims to create a number of higher-quality, less-sketchy cannabinoid formulation products—something the market is ready for, according to Autodesk Research’s Andrew Hessel, who has invested in Hyasynth: “It could become the leader in a pre-existing, fast-growing multibillion-dollar market.”

Hyasynth isn’t quite there yet. Commercializing medical products is a long process full of regulatory hurdles. Chen is optimistic about the firm’s progress; if all goes to plan, it will have a research-grade product out by early 2017 and a clinical one in two to three years. And he expects to have his first pharma clients lined up by the end of 2016. “We’ll have a set of companies waiting for us to produce the variations they’ve requested,” he explains.

It’s still early days, but Chen believes now is the time to establish a lead, as he expects rivals to enter the market soon. “You’re going to see the medical marijuana industry change drastically over the next few years,” he says. “The industry is going to shift toward higher-quality products. And those are the solutions we’re developing.”

More about the 2016 Change Agents