This is one in a series of profiles of the winners of the 2018 Governor General’s Innovation Awards. See all honourees. 

University students can hope for one inspiring class that leads to a path of discovery or even a life-long career. For David Brown, that turning point came during a course called Industrial Microbiology at the end of four years of studying biochemistry at the University of Alberta.

His professor, Dr. Julia Foght, taught the course alongside guest lecturers who presented the business side of biotechnology, “something I had never considered before,” Brown says. “They all had worked at different companies and research institutions and hearing them was motivating.” The students eventually had to develop a technology using a microorganism and then pitch it to the group as a product.

“That class got me out of bed in the morning,” recalls Brown, 27, a biotechnology entrepreneur who today runs a company that makes life-saving pharmaceutical ingredients. “Until then I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. I, like most students, was completely lost. This was an area of science I finally fit into.”

“The only way that I know to become more innovative or creative is through becoming more knowledgeable. And that’s actually very easy to do, either by institutional learning, life experiences, travel, working or anything else that increases your knowledge base. Don’t mistakenly focus all of your effort on becoming knowledgeable in the one specific area that pertains to you and your interest. Spend time on other areas so that you have a wide spectrum of knowledge you can pull thoughts from.”

After graduating in 2013, he returned home to his native Fredericton and started Mycodev Group, a company that uses a new method to produce the biopolymer chitosan, an ingredient in drugs and medical devices. The substance is traditionally extracted in a heavily polluting process from shellfish; Mycodev instead uses fungal fermentation, a safe, green and reliable process that consumes very little energy or chemicals, an idea the company patented and took to market.

“The best place for innovation is when there’s a big problem to be solved,” comments Brown, noting that a lot of critical research carried out in major universities doesn’t end up being transferred to the marketplace, especially because of a lack of private investment. “Many ideas stay on the shelf. There’s a lot of lost opportunity there.”

Brown says he now regrets naming his company Mycodev — it’s a combination of “mycology” (the study of fungus) and “development” — but it’s a world leader in sustainable, consistent chitosan production. The substance, which it sells to major pharmaceutical and medical device companies around the world, is used in wound care and in liquid biopsies for cancer detection, among other things.

Last year Brown co-founded Chinova Bioworks, which makes a natural preservative from mushroom chitosan to produce antimicrobials that he says, “have a huge potential in the marketplace and can really make a big impact in improving human health.”

He believes that such biotechnology developments will make a difference in New Brunswick, which he says is facing a difficult economic future. “Driving innovation is essential to the recovery and long-term success of the province and to Canada as a whole.”

There is a good deal of government support for biotechnology research in Canada through programs at the provincial and federal level, he says, but he’d like to see greater access to investment beyond that point. “Venture capital is so sparse in Canada compared to the United States. The best thing that governments can do is to make investing in Canadian startups easier; for example, continuing to open up the regulations for online crowd-funding is a great start.”

He says that at the same time, it’s important for scientists to broaden their understanding of areas beyond their scope in order to be innovative. For instance, Brown explains that he reads widely in different subjects in order to think more creatively. “Almost every day I read either about science, economics, business, arts or politics. Taking all of that knowledge and then applying it to an area I’m working on has helped me come up with many solutions we use in the business today.”

It’s been a long path from an undergraduate class- room in Alberta to running two biotechnology companies in New Brunswick, but Brown says “it’s been fun.”

“There were countless long nights in the lab, week- ends and holidays spent working. It involved a lot of sacrifice, but at the same time I never really questioned if it was worth it.”