Robert Carter

Distinguished Alumni Award

Scientist-Entrepreneur Creates Drug Molecules That Can Change Lives

Robert Foster’s tenacity has his small pharmaceutical company punching above its weight

By Therese Kehler and Geoff McMaster

Robert Carter
October 26, 2022 •

Robert Foster, ’79 BSc, ’82 BSc(Pharm), ’85 PharmD, ’88 PhD, was thinking of a music career when fate, in the form of gentle dissuasion from his trumpet teacher, intervened. He drifted into the science faculty, played pool at SUB, suffered through English classes and stumbled into organic chemistry. 

“And I just clicked,” Foster recalls. “I could visualize what needed to be done to understand molecules.”

Fate had struck.

More than 40 years after getting his first degree of four, Foster has matched that understanding of molecules with business acumen (he has been the founder and/or CEO of four companies), a willingness to take risks (he left a tenured U of A position to start his first company in 1993) and sheer tenacity. “It’s almost like the pit bull mentality,” he says. “I was, in a way, that pit bull.”

Foster is among the few Canadian drug inventors to get approval for a drug from the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency. Since 2021, voclosporin has provided relief to hundreds of thousands of people with lupus nephritis, a severe autoimmune condition. 

Earlier this year, Foster got another FDA boost when rencofilstat, a drug developed by his company Hepion Pharmaceuticals, was granted orphan drug status for liver disease. (Orphan drug status covers drugs for rare diseases that might not be profitable to produce without government assistance.) Rencofilstat has also received an FDA fast track designation for use in another liver disease called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, also referred to as NASH, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. About a quarter of the population is believed to have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, of which about 20 per cent will develop NASH. 

“We should all study how he moves through creative discovery to business creation to human application. Simply put, I know few better examples of success on this difficult pathway than Dr. Robert Foster.”
Philip Halloran, director, Alberta Transplant Applied Genomics Centre

Little wonder that Foster is excited. “If we can put a little dent on the clinical course of having NASH … we can save lives,” he says. “It’s a big task for a small little company.”

Fortunately for that small company, the boss has learned a thing or two since starting his career journey as a scientist, businessman and inventor. 

“When you’re in this type of business — or maybe any other business — in your mind you’ve got Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and I’m not sure you’re limited to 26 letters of the alphabet,” he says. “You better have a lot of ideas because that’s what will hopefully enable you to be successful.”

You’d also be wise to surround yourself, as Foster has, with trusted colleagues who push and fight for the business’s success.

“It’s not a one-man show,” says the guy who literally used to blow his own horn.

“If you want to win that Stanley Cup — which is like getting a drug developed and approved by the FDA — you need to have a team.” 

Lorne Tyrrell, ’64 BSc, ’68 MD, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, knows very well the dedication, persistence and teamwork it takes to develop a drug. It was Tyrrell’s research that led to the first oral treatment for chronic hepatitis B. 

“It takes unending passion and energy to build a company from scratch,” Tyrrell says. 

“Dr. Foster has done this over 28 years, and the culmination of his work is the FDA approval of the first oral treatment for systemic lupus nephritis.”

The University of Alberta Alumni Awards recognize outstanding graduates who lead the way around the globe. See the complete list of 2022 recipients. Who should we recognize next? Nominate a U of A grad you think should be celebrated. Deadline is 11:59 p.m. MST on Dec. 15, 2022.

Go Deeper

More about Robert Foster, a recipient of a 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Parental influences
Foster’s mom was a piano player who occasionally performed at the Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton. His dad was a businessman with a practical “farm mentality.” Foster’s eventual combining of science and business came from “things that I picked up by osmosis, growing up in the family that I grew up in — which was a business family.”

Best advice
The warning that steered Foster away from music was a blessing. “In my 20s, I had a problem with my esophagus, which really put an end to the trumpet-playing days. Lucky thing I went into science.”

DIY guy
Working in his younger days at his father's sawmill in Nordegg, Alta., taught Foster self-sufficiency. “Lying on your back, putting a new clutch in a forklift or skidder, you realize this is the way it is,” Foster says. “You need to fix it because we need to get back to work.”

The money talk
“I knew academically that some one to two billion dollars [was needed] to create a drug. But I didn’t realize that, if I wanted to do it on my own, the one to two billion fell on my shoulders.”

Alumni pride
Foster has plenty of pride in his school, reeling off names of faculty who taught him, alumni he admires and grads he has met around the world. “I’ve heard people describe the U of A as Stanford of the North,” he says. “Like no. Forget about it. It is the U of A.”

We at New Trail welcome your comments. Robust debate and criticism are encouraged, provided it is respectful. We reserve the right to reject comments, images or links that attack ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation; that include offensive language, threats, spam; are fraudulent or defamatory; infringe on copyright or trademarks; and that just generally aren’t very nice. Discussion is monitored and violation of these guidelines will result in comments being disabled.

Latest Stories