Interview with Don Stewart, Ph.D., President and CEO of PlantForm Corporation
“Be prepared to take advantage of new opportunities which open up, sometimes by plan and sometimes by the unexpected.” – Dr. Don Stewart
Please give us a little background on your career trajectory.
I am a graduate of Glasgow University, Scotland where I studied what, at the time, was a new discipline, Cell Biology. I then moved to the UK to pursue a PhD in biochemistry from the University of London. My graduate work, funded by the Medical Research Council, UK, was at the Royal College of Surgeons which at the time had a small research institute focused on biological sciences. In 1982 I was then awarded an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Post-Doctoral fellowship and moved to Edmonton, Alberta to continue my studies in biochemistry with Dr. Larry Smillie at the University of Alberta.
From 1985 onwards, I have worked in the field of biotechnology, developing innovative and biosimilar drugs for Cangene Corporation over 20 years and most recently, over the last 8 years, establishing and advancing PlantForm Corporation.
What was the most valuable part of your graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship experience?
In graduate school and as a post-doc, I had the opportunity to work for two outstanding supervisors who both believed in allowing you to explore a scientific area with your own approach without being involved in the daily details, which you had to figure out yourself. This is an approach I have tried to implement in my role as a manager, providing direction and support and being encouraging rather than criticizing.
In my academic career, I also had the opportunity be involved in collaborations with other researchers and the value of the new approaches and experiences from these connections has been important in developing the many professional relationships required from a CEO.
Your career trajectory is very impressive – from being a Director at Cangene, to the President of Alba Biologics, to now being the President and CEO at PlantForm. Can you describe your career path from leaving academia to your current position?
In 1985, I had the opportunity to join Cangene Corporation, an early stage start-up biotechnology company in Mississauga. Cangene grew from 10 people at that time to an 800 person company, developing and manufacturing antibody and protein drugs approved across the world. I grew with the company as it advanced products from the early research stage through clinical trials and into the market. Originally hired to run the protein biochemistry side of the company’s research group, I had the opportunity to become involved in process development. I also ran the group that produced drugs for evaluation in clinical trials and then took on a senior role in Research. I was the Director of Research for Cangene Corporation from 1997 to 2007 and led programs to develop innovative and biosimilar drugs. I was also supervising animal efficacy and toxicology studies as well for as running a clinical trial program. During this period, our group secured more that $15 million in external grant and contract funding.
In 2007 I established a consulting company, Alba Biologics Group, focused on supporting smaller biotech companies to advance their manufacturing projects. At the same time, we developed a plan and created the company PlantForm Corporation where I am currently the CEO.
Please tell us a little bit about PlantForm and what your current position as President and CEO entails.
PlantForm Corporation is a privately-held Canadian biopharmaceutical company, commercializing a plant-based manufacturing platform, vivoXPRESS®, for the low-cost production of high-value therapeutic protein drugs. Our pipeline includes biosimilar drugs with a focus on international markets including China, Europe, India, Latin America, MENA and North America. The company is also developing innovator biologics for niche infectious disease and countermeasures-to-bioterrorism markets.
Our pipeline is funded through equity, government grants and contracts from non-profit organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We have established a joint venture organization in Brazil and are securing financing for both the Canadian and Brazilian organizations to bring our first products into clinical trials.
In my role as President and CEO, I am one of the members of our senior management team who, with the Board, set the general direction for the organization. I am primarily involved in securing financing for the company as well as opening opportunities for partnering and contract work. I am more involved in marketing the company rather that in running the day to day operations of the organization.
Do you think having a PhD has helped you in your career, and if so, in what ways?
Having a PhD has opened career choices which would not have otherwise presented themselves to me. First, having the opportunity to move from Europe to North America as a post-doc was an opportunity that I was pleased to pursue. Within the Pharmaceutical industry, a PhD is not required to advance into senior management, but it did allow me to move through the R&D side of a growing organization which would not have been possible without a PhD.
What professional qualities and strengths do you think are necessary to become a President/CEO and to lead a successful team?
My view on the key strength in leadership is to know what you don’t know. As the CEO of a technology company, it is important to understand the approaches needed to achieve the company’s goals and have a good feeling for what is a realistic timeline. You don’t need a detailed understanding of every aspect of the company’s technology or business but you must trust the people who do have this knowledge. There are many cases where a decision must be made and you must trust the people giving you the information and suggestions about what to do. I also believe it is important to support your team members whenever possible.
What are some of the key challenges, if any, that you faced on your journey to secure this position?
One of the key challenges in an organization is knowing how best to manage relationships with your direct and indirect “bosses” to achieve the goals of an organization. While a CEO may set the goals of an organization, a manager may emphasise competing priorities to implement these objectives in different ways. At Cangene I ran a Mississauga-based site for an organization centered out of Winnipeg, which is a remote relationship. Being at a satellite location meant that it was not possible to pop into a colleague’s office and get advice on an issue which was becoming a problem and develop the informal relationships which help move multi-disciplinary projects forward.
The work place is becoming less centered on staff located at a central office site. Many people work from home or dispersed locations, and it is important to develop an understanding of how to best manage relationships both up and down the reporting structure in this environment
What advice would you give to students who are looking for career options in industry?
I moved from an academic environment to industry and at the time had little idea of the varied and exciting potential for a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. I would encourage students to look beyond their first job in industry and rather try to become aware of the many varied positions where starter jobs could lead to in time. Be prepared to take advantage of new opportunities which open up, sometimes by plan and sometimes by the unexpected.
Interview by LSCDS Exec Member Neeti Vashi
Neeti is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics, pursuing her research in the lab of Dr. Monica Justice. She is interested in a career in Medical Affairs or Medical Writing. She can be found on LinkedIn here.