How To Tackle Those ‘Unanswered Questions’

There's big money in biotechnology, and the push to find new cures for diseases. But at the heart of it all remains academic research.

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Stefan Larson has seen all sides of the biotech space. In the lab throughout his Masters and PhD studies, Larson moved to the business end as the CEO of several biotech startups including Northern Biologics, a biotech company developing cancer therapeutics, and is now, as a Venture Partner and Advisor at Versant Ventures, a leading healthcare investment firm.

Yet throughout all of these career changes, there is one thing he hasn’t forgotten: “For us in the world of biotech, we wouldn’t exist without basic research.”

Versant Ventures made headlines in December 2016 when they announced a $225 million USD deal with Bayer AG to launch BlueRock Therapeutics, a next-generation regenerative medicine company focused on breakthrough stem cell technology treatments. The investment is one of the largest series A financing rounds in history for a biotech company.

But before the press releases and the fanfare, there was hard work. The technology behind BlueRock Therapeutics was developed over years in the labs of University of Toronto Professors Gordon Keller and Michael Laflamme.

Biotechnology tries to find ways to harness complex biology to ultimately improve industrial processes and cure disease. But you can’t harness what you don’t understand.

“There are so many fundamental unanswered questions in human disease, that without basic research, we can’t even begin to think about developing drugs for these diseases,” explains Larson.

Larson sees government-funded academic research as being part of the “fertile landscape” that a country must create in order to spur innovation and help businesses thrive.

“We need scientists out there taking the risks, exploring areas of biology,” says Larson. “That’s really what feeds our engine of ultimately creating companies that will someday bring a drug to market.”

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Stefan Larson is a Venture Partner and serves on the board of Northern Biologics, a Versant portfolio company. Based in the MaRS Discovery District, Stefan was the founding CEO of Blueline Bioscience, a Versant Discovery Engine, and was the founding CEO of Northern Biologics.

Stefan joined Versant after spending three years as the co-founder and CEO of Tornado Medical Systems, a revenue stage medical imaging and spectroscopy company. He previously held the position of Associate Principal with McKinsey & Company, serving global clients in healthcare and technology. He is currently a director of the MaRS Discovery District and Ontario Bioscience Innovation Organization (OBIO), and is a recipient of the Arbor Award for Exceptional Volunteer Service to the University of Toronto.

Stefan received his B.Sc. in Biology from McGill University, and his M.Sc. in Molecular and Medical Genetics from the University of Toronto. He completed his Ph.D. in Biophysics at Stanford University, where he helped build and launch Folding@home, the world’s most successful scientific public distributed computing platform.