We sat down with Dr. Jason Acker, co-Founder and CEO of PanTHERA CryoSolutions and understood the motivations behind embarking on a start-up and the story behind the name.
Dr. Jason Acker is a Senior Research Scientist with the Canadian Blood Services and a Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Dr. Jason was also recently appointed as the Associate Vice President for Research Integrity Support at the University of Alberta. His research focuses on understanding the response of cells and tissues to ex vivo storage and the development of methods for their preservation and use as therapeutic products.
Dr. Jason is actively consulting with and advising companies and organizations developing biobanking and cell therapy programs. Dr. Jason attained his Master of Business Administration in 2009 and possesses extensive knowledge in working with university startups. He successfully established Aquila Diagnostics, which developed several innovative products. Aquila Diagnostics was successful for more than ten years, raised millions in investment and had more than twenty employees.
For this feature, Dr. Acker shares the aspirations for his start-up: PanTHERA CryoSolutions.
Why PanTHERA CryoSolutions? Tell us the story.
PanTHERA CryoSolutions is a spin-off of the University of Alberta and the University of Ottawa from the research programs with Prof Robert Ben and myself. Rob and I had worked together for eight years, leading up to when we incorporated PanTHERA CryoSolutions. We were exploring these novel small molecule ice recrystallization inhibitors and their unique ability to protect cells, which is different from what other cryoprotectants can do.
We asked ourselves what kind of characteristics we want in these molecules and how we evaluate them. What are the opportunities to mitigate some of the injuries we know occur to cell therapies? Hence the ‘thera’ in PanTHERA comes from the fundamental view that the next generation of medicines will be cell-based therapies. And then the ‘Pan’ came from our IRI technology being broadly applicable to a variety of different cells.
After which, ‘CryoSolutions’ was added to it. And a little wordplay where ‘cryo’ obviously speaks to the freezing side of what our technology focuses on or its low-temperature storage piece. And then ‘solutions’ being both the product which is the ice crystallization inhibitors and also the fact that we’re solving a real problem in the industry. So the word ‘solutions’ comes from that play on words as well. That’s really where the company brand started.
Then we opened it up to our board and staff to choose what they liked best. At the time, there were other employees, so we made it a contest. Throw your suggested names in, and we had a bit of a discussion first around values, principles, beliefs, what the product is, and what the market needs. And it was Tracy Turner who came up with the winning name, or at least the first version of it, and then we iterated on it as a group, and that’s where we came up with ‘PanTHERA CryoSolutions’.
If you could do life all over again, do you think you would have chosen to be a scientist?
Oh, absolutely. The scientist job is one that I feel that I am naturally suited for. As a kid, I was always about puzzles. I was curious. I was always asking questions about why this is, how things work, taking things apart, and putting them back together to try to figure out how things worked. So the natural curiosity I had suited being a scientist. The term ‘scientist’ is broad and is a general description of what someone does, but for me, it is more of being a professional problem solver or innovator and a discoverer of new ideas. Again, this naturally fits my personality, and I saw myself doing what I am now.
Although, I did not see myself going into entrepreneurship. However, it was a natural extension of the desire to see the discoveries we were making in the lab translate and have an impact beyond simply helping others think differently about problems but also solving real-world problems. And I learned early on that technology is commercialized, and the importance of going through a commercialization process if you’re going to have any chance of that technology seeing the light of day.
Was there a moment in your life when you felt that cryobiology is the field of science that you want to embark on?
I got involved with cryobiology as an undergraduate student and was very fortunate to be mentored by Dr. Locksley McGann at the University of Alberta. He is one of the most prominent cryobiologists in Canada and one of the top cryobiologists in the world. He was doing extremely innovative work, looking at Applied Cryobiology, which essentially solves cell and tissue banking problems. When I joined the group here, he was doing work in conservation biology and using applied cryobiology to help preserve endangered species. Besides helping to protect endangered species, Dr. McGann also saw the opportunity to educate the industry about how to use this technology appropriately. The opportunity to work with Professor McGann and see how the technology went from the bench to the bedside was beneficial for me in realizing the potential it has. I remember it being early on in those undergraduate years when I was attending a cryobiology meeting where I saw both the opportunity regarding this technology, what it could achieve, and the need for it. I also noticed a small international community of very well-connected and collegial scientists. That was something I wanted to be part of, and I saw the opportunity to, through my work as a student trainee and ultimately through the research we are doing as a business, to have some impact in the emerging area of cell and gene therapies.
After I finished my undergrad, I then wondered what was next. Like many students graduating from science, I applied to a number of medical programs, but thankfully I didn’t get in. So I was forced to look at what my plan B was. It was a logical extension to continue my education. So I did a Master of Science degree while still playing around with the idea of attending medical school. But after digging into my graduate thesis, I found my niche. So then, after finishing my master’s degree, I looked at other programs to do a Ph.D. I met other scientists from around the world, having attended several cryobiology meetings, but quickly realized that the best place to be was in Edmonton, so I didn’t have to go very far to do my Ph.D. It was helpful because I was able to extend my master’s program into a Ph.D. and then complete it relatively quickly, then carry on with a lot of the ideas which interestingly have framed how we’ve been approaching cryoinjury concerning the technology that PanTHERA CryoSolutions has developed, so it fits nicely.
If you could choose one word that summarizes your work, what do you think that word would be and why?
That’s a good question! Well, the obvious one is ‘cool.’ ‘Cool’ because we’re leveraging temperature to put cells in the state of suspended animation and allow them to be used as therapies. It’s ‘cool’ because of this approach that we’re taking mimics nature and natural systems. We’re learning what Mother Nature’s already done. It’s a ‘cool’ technology because it’s easy. It’s simple. It’s cost-effective, and it’s effective in terms of addressing the challenges. So yes, ‘cool’ is one word I think summarizes my work.
And what is interesting about cryopreservation is that it involves two pieces. The first would be preserving the biological system during cooling until a stable storage temperature is reached. Next is the stability piece, protecting those structures during extended storage and when warming the cells back from those stable storage temperatures.
So it’s essentially a preservation and stability approach to maintaining life in a state that is either significantly slowed down or suspended. So many early scientists who explored this approach used temperature to put cells in a suspended state to study the origins of life. And using temperature was a unique way of putting cells in a state that looks like death but, in fact, is protective, and it’s not life because it’s also not growing, dividing, or doing the thing that living cells are supposed to do. So it’s at the interface of life and death.
Could you share with us one of your biggest challenges so far?
Well, I think the biggest challenge was early in my academic career when I was unsure what I wanted to do. I graduated with a Ph.D. at 25, completed my postdoc and was a faculty member at 27. So for the first few years, I did what I was told and wrote grants and recruited students to create a lab. However, I quickly hit a wall. When I was in my 30s, I had a crisis where I wondered if this was the path I wanted to be on. Or do I want to get on a different track? And I think that part of the challenge was the opportunity to think differently about my career. And that’s when I again started exploring this idea of entrepreneurship and commercialization and seeing how I can make an impact with who I am and what I do. So I was partly recreating my mission statement and concluded that I want to make an impact by using scientific skills, techniques and knowledge to solve the world’s most significant challenges. And that’s what gets me excited. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That helps me focus on where I need to put my time, energy and attention. So I don’t think it is a challenge per se, but instead, it was finding my “why”. I think the challenge for me was trying to figure out the big why for me from a personal perspective, and it’s guided me over the last 18 years in terms of where I place my focus. There have been crises, and there will always be crises. Many of them come down to whether they’re ethical dilemmas that you’re facing, financial pressures that you face, or interpersonal challenges because you’ve got people you want to work with or don’t want to work with and how you manage that. There will always be challenges in life. But I think my approach to those challenges has always been – to be open, transparent, honest, authentic and communicate. And those challenges tend not to be the big ones that you have to worry about.
What excites you the most when it comes to PanTHERA CryoSolutions?
The technology we’ve developed in the research lab excites me the most because it addresses a problem that we, as scientists, haven’t been able to figure out. But nature figured out that controlling ice and ice recrystallization is one way natural systems can survive at low temperatures. So it is learning about that and then applying modern rational chemical design and chemistry to develop small synthetic molecules. These molecules deal with the immunological challenges of other proposed strategies. They are permeable, meaning the molecules can enter the tissues and cells as required. They’re non-toxic. It is an exciting technology.
And I think the opportunity then is from a commercial standpoint, how do we bring that technology to market and what’s the best strategy to do that. So we’re thrilled to work with BioLife Solutions and our partners to evaluate the product and get it in the hands of the end user. I estimate that our clients will be using our products within the next year, and we can see the effect that improved cryopreservation has on patients’ lives. I believe that the ultimate goal is to ensure that cell-based products given to patients are of the highest quality, particularly as cryopreservation is used as a step in manufacturing and distributing those products. So it is rewarding to see an idea from a research collaboration move through and become a product. And it is not just any product but ones that customers use to solve a real problem in the world, helping others.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About PanTHERA CryoSolutions
PanTHERA CryoSolutions is a Canadian corporation that designs and manufactures cryopreservation solutions for cells, tissues and organs for research and clinical markets. Our patented ice recrystallization inhibitor (IRI) technology exceeds other products by providing superior cryopreservation and increasing post-thaw cell recovery and function for our customers. The technology enables the use of significantly less costly storage and transportation systems limiting the need for liquid nitrogen use for some cell therapy applications