It took seven years for Pierre Laurin to be recognized for the innovation that would eventually change an industry. Laurin began working on a multi-step process to separate proteins with therapeutic value from blood plasma in 1989. Validation arrived in 1996, with the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement, handed out to the organization for “innovating means of separating protein pharmaceuticals.” Except the award wasn’t given to Laurin, but to the company he worked for, Affinity Chromatography Ltd. Spun off from the University of Cambridge so the technology could be commercialized, it had become known as ProMetic Life Sciences two years prior to the accolade.
If Laurin was in it solely for the acclaim, the CEO would have had packed it in long ago. “Pierre has dedicated a large chunk of his career to this company,” says Neil Maruoka, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity who covers ProMetic. “Pierre was able to recognize the power of that technology very early and has been tenacious in figuring out the right strategy and the right way to apply that technology within the business.”
Back in 1987, ProMetic’s process (which is also called affinity chromatography) started with a big idea. Drug side effects are often caused by impurities. “If we could take a technology that could filter out impurities, we could make very well-established drugs safer,” Laurin says of the original intent. The company’s technology is now built into the manufacturing process for blockbuster drugs from pharmaceutical giants like GlaxoSmithKline.
That’s the legacy portion of the company’s business, and it will serve as the “cash-flow engine” (Laurin’s words) for the next stage of ProMetic’s evolution. In 2000, the company entered into a joint venture with the American Red Cross that aimed to use ProMetic’s technology to pull therapeutic proteins out of blood plasma. ProMetic now has a potential hit on its hands, in the form of PBI-4050, “a little pill taken once a day that could address multiple fibrosis complications,” says Laurin. Fibrosis causes health problems ranging from cirrhosis of the liver to congestive heart failure. Laurin estimates that the protein-based drugs ProMetic hopes to produce could generate $500 million in revenue within five years. But he emphasizes that the pursuit of profit is not what drives him or his company. “Make money for the shareholders, sure. But make money for the shareholders in the way that you can make affordable drugs for the system,” he says. “There’s no point in advancing a drug that costs a million dollars a year—who can afford that?”