Business Science and Technology

Passion for mentorship drives successful serial entrepreneur’s new venture with U of A

For Christopher Micetich, heading up the University of Alberta’s newest accelerator program is about creating teams that combine research innovation with business acumen.

  • January 28, 2021
  • By Michael Brown

When Christopher Micetich attended the University of Alberta in the 1980s, he figured he would be a natural fit in chemistry.

After all, in 1980 his father Ronald Micetich, a world-renowned medicinal chemist, joined the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences as an adjunct professor teaching and working on contract chemical synthesis that would eventually lead to the creation of Ronald’s joint venture company with a major Japanese company.

That company, SynPhar Laboratories, would eventually file more than 100 compositional matter patents, one of which—tazobactam, a beta lactamase inhibitor used in combination with antibiotics to increase their effectiveness—would go on to have annual sales of more than $1 billion.

“It turns out, I didn’t enjoy chemistry,” said Micetich, “which is ironic because I've been managing chemistry-based companies now for almost 35 years.”

Helping people ‘turn on the light bulb’

Micetich, a self-described serial entrepreneur who co-created and is heading up the U of A’s newest accelerator program—Innovation Masterminds Edmonton (imYEG)—initially felt he was better suited for a degree in education.

“I think it was a love of coaching that drew me to education in the first place,” said Micetich. “From a young age I enjoyed helping people turn on the light bulb and helping them to understand that several people with different skills working together are what make a good team.”

After graduating, Micetich joined his father in SynPhar in 1987. He eventually orchestrated the acquisition of the company's assets from his father’s Japanese partners and, in 1999 together with his father, founded the university spinoff NAEJA Pharmaceutical, a privately controlled family company offering chemistry and biology services to the world.

All told, Micetich has founded seven businesses, including two current ventures, Brass Dome Ventures Ltd. and Fedora Pharmaceuticals, the latter of which earned him the 2015 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award after licensing the rights to another beta lactamase inhibitor, nacubactam, for US$750 million plus royalties.

Chris Micetich
As head of the U of A's new Innovation Masterminds Edmonton (imYEG) accelerator program, Christopher Micetich aims to instil the team approach that helped him become a successful entrepreneur and founder of seven businesses. (Photo: Brock Kryton)

With such success in the business world, it made perfect sense that his passion for mentoring would make the jump into the realm of business. Over the years he has taken on board roles with the City of Edmonton’s Economic Development Corporation (now called Explore Edmonton), TEC Edmonton and other private companies, as well as mentoring roles with Creative Destruction Lab in Calgary, and the U of A’s ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service.

“I guess I have a soft spot for helping entrepreneurs and business leaders who are willing to take risks.”

Team approach

He also has a willingness to share the keys to his success, which include capitalizing on his strengths and recognizing his weaknesses.

“I would say my business success comes from being able to recognize what I'm not good at and filling those holes,” said Micetich. “I’ve always surrounded myself with people that are much better at those areas, and we work together as a team.”

It’s that team approach that Micetich, who recently wrote the book One Day You’ll Understand about his journey as an entrepreneur, wants to instil at the U of A as it springboards its leadership in research to leadership in commercializing innovation. 

imYEG is the co-creation of U of A and Brass Dome Ventures—an industry-led accelerator to address and overcome the earliest barriers faced by researchers just starting on the path to commercialization. 

“Our challenge in academia is that we don't come in with that business expertise,” said Deborah James, U of A associate vice-president (innovation and commercialization). “There are a few academics who can make it through that entrepreneurial journey, but generally speaking, that's not what we do.”

James added it’s not just the expertise of how to start and run a business that researchers need, but also a better understanding of what industry is looking for in terms of new innovations.

“There's a wealth of innovation happening at the university and we do need to do a better job of extracting that out of the corridors and labs, and getting it out into the business world through commercialization,” she said. “imYEG will not only couple our researchers with the business experts they need, but will also better connect them with industry.” 

She added, “Product validation from industry in those early stages of technology development is extremely valuable as we seek to enhance the commercial value in new ventures.”

Micetich said for the commercialization process to work better, some of the onus for the success of academia-initiated startups needs to be lifted from the shoulders of the researchers and guided by people better suited to advance innovations.

“If a university professor wants to create a company, you wouldn't ask for help from somebody who's never done it before,” he said. “You want to ask someone who's thought of a company name, who's struggled through the pain of financing, who actually got a company going and then spent many months on that journey figuring out how to make payroll—those are the people that you get the most valuable experience from.”

imYEG will match researchers and their ideas still in their infancy with three to five multi-disciplinary, seasoned “founders.”

The founders, a few of whom are U of A graduates, will be selected based on strict criteria including their current and past business success and their startup investment activities.

Before the founders become involved, Micetich’s Brass Dome Ventures team conducts readiness assessments with prospective researchers, walking them through the process and assessing strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. 

From there, Brass Dome helps the innovators prepare to pitch their ideas to the imYEG Council of Founders for feedback—Dragons' Den style. Between three and five founders volunteer to provide ongoing mentorship in advancing the innovation up the “readiness scale” to feed into later-stage accelerators like TEC Edmonton, which is focused on supporting companies with traction.