Dr. Robert Foster 2018

On rotation at the University of Alberta Hospital as a pharmacy undergrad in 1982, Dr. Robert "Bob" Foster (PharmD '85; PhD, '88) had to find a solo research topic. He stumbled upon pharmacokinetics-a branch of pharmaceutical sciences, in its infancy at the time, that examines the movement of drugs within the body. Thirty-six years and a lifetime of achievements in the field later, he's been recognized with the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences' 2018 Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award. But for Foster, accolades were never part of the equation; his curiosity is propelled by the enjoyment of keeping up with an ever-growing field.

"When I graduated, we used synthetic chemistry to create most of our molecules. Things have changed so much, things that we couldn't have ever imagined," says Foster. "That's what I find so exciting, that it's evolving so quickly that most of the names of the drugs I first learned about have disappeared or changed."

Like so many compelling success stories, Foster started out as a one-man operation in his home office. After completing his education, he set out with nothing more than an IKEA desk and filing cabinet to create his own biopharmaceutical company. By the mid-1990s, he had created Voclosporin, an immunosuppressant drug to treat kidney inflammation caused by lupus, and signed a deal with one of the largest Swiss drug companies.

In 2008, Foster saw the funding for his company, Isotechnika, cut significantly and was forced to slow down production to keep the company afloat before finding an alternative partnership five years later and rebranding to Aurinia. He says that in a field like pharmaceutical sciences, learning to be patient is one of the hardest but most critical traits to develop.

"It can be frustrating if you're purely thinking about the business aspect. But if you're thinking about the overall successful program and the health and well-being of the patient, ultimately, it's better to be safe than sorry."

Fifteen years later, Voclosporin has finished recruiting for phase three research, and Foster hopes to see his drug hitting the market as soon as 2020. Though the amount of time and commitment spent on just one creation may be jarring, the average number of years a drug takes to go from the research phase to the pharmacy is 12 years, so it seems Foster is right on schedule.

"Getting the drug to market is vindication," says Foster. "To know that I was able to do that with the right team and the right mix of science and business-to have a success like that-is really cool."

Voclosporin is just one of the many successes Foster has had over his career. In total, the biotech CEO has over 240 patents of which 216 are currently active. In the mid-1990s, Foster developed the Helikit, a breathalyzer-based diagnostic kit used to scan for stomach ulcers that bypassed the need for biopsy. Foster sold the creation in 2006, but it continues to be used in medical labs across the world today.

Now, Foster spends his time as Chief Scientific Officer at ContraVir Pharmaceuticals and as an adjunct professor with the Faculty. It's a far cry from the retail pharmacist he was once on the path to becoming, and he hopes that his story inspires others in the field to use their ingenuity for good.

"Pharmacy overall has so much flexibility and so much potential. You can either choose to be a pharmacist in the traditional sense or you can use it and combine it with any number of things," says Foster. "I really do believe that when it's time to leave this world, we must leave it with something more than what we've taken out of it."