Cool idea: Ottawa biotech firm’s cell-chilling technology lures major investors, big-name CEO

A former top executive at a major Ottawa tech firm is spearheading a new biotech startup’s bid to commercialize a process that preserves human organs and stem cells for up to a week without freezing them – a development the firm’s backers say could make transplants more viable and revolutionize medical research.

Keith Millar
Former Pythian president Keith Millar has joined Ottawa biotech firm CryoStasis as chief executive. Photo courtesy Keith Millar.

CryoStasis announced earlier this month that Keith Millar has joined the fledgling firm as president and chief executive. Millar, who spent nearly eight years as president of big-data analytics and cloud services provider Pythian before assuming his new post, will guide the startup’s efforts to bring its proprietary “sub-zero unfrozen” technology to market. 

“The technology has been developed,” says CryoStasis executive chairman Jan Kaminski, a mechanical engineer and former tech CEO who’s best known for heading up Colonnade Investments, an Ottawa-based private equity firm with extensive holdings in the real estate, agricultural and environmental sectors. 

“The issue now is, can we commercialize it to scale? When that became the key problem, that’s when I thought of Keith. Keith and I worked together before, and he’s the best that I know that does this.”

CryoStasis was born out of four decades of research from biochemist Olga Kukal, a professor at Queen’s University, and her husband, physical chemist Tom Allen. 

The couple spent years studying how insects such as the woolly bear caterpillar evolved to survive in sub-zero temperatures in the Far North. They eventually applied their findings to develop a technique that can effectively preserve human tissue – including stem cells and organs such as kidneys – for up to seven days by lowering its temperature to -5 C without freezing it.

After Kukal died in September 2020, Allen was determined to carry on his wife’s legacy. He asked Kaminski, a friend who had a cottage just down the road from the couple in Newport, for advice.

“We were chatting, and he said, ‘I need your help. I need to do something with all this research,’” Kaminski says. “As we drilled further and further into it, it became clear that there was a pretty substantial opportunity.”

Kaminski explains that traditional methods of preserving human tissue for extended periods require it to be frozen, which can inflict tremendous damage. Because human cells are made up of more than 70 per cent water, they expand when frozen and contract when heated – a process that can cause cells to effectively “break apart” in a way Kaminski likens to asphalt that cracks after too many spring thaws. 

“A lot of bad things happen when you freeze cells,” he says. “If we can commercialize this in certain applications, it’s going to change a lot of different things in the health-care industry.”

"A lot of bad things happen when you freeze cells. If we can commercialize this ... it's going to change a lot different things in the health-care industry."

While potential applications for the technology abound, CryoStasis is focusing its efforts on two areas it believes are most likely to bear commercial fruit: kidney transplants and stem-cell research.

Millar notes that about 40,000 kidney transplants are performed each year in the United States, accounting for two-thirds of all organ transplant procedures. An additional 100,000 people remain on waiting lists for donor kidneys and an estimated half a million more who need transplants aren’t even in the queue.

A big part of the problem, he says, is that kidneys typically must be implanted within 12 hours of being removed from the donor. That leaves little room for error in conducting all the necessary tests required to match donors with recipients.

But using CryoStasis’s techniques, kidneys could remain viable for up to seven days, buying hospitals valuable extra time to screen more patients.

“That would make a fundamental difference to how much matching can be done,” Millar explains.

Meanwhile, he says, current medical research that relies on stem cells suffers because the cells are so fragile. When a cell is frozen, he notes, “it’s basically a coin flip whether it lives or dies.” 

That means studies that often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch and execute waste tremendous resources on cellular material that ultimately doesn’t survive the process, Millar says. He says his firm’s technology could preserve those cells, potentially saving hospitals and other research facilities millions of dollars each year.

“If you can take something that takes a quarter of a million dollars to create and not throw away three-quarters of it, you can do the math on the economic benefit of that,” he says.

So far, CryoStasis has raised $4.5 million from contributors who include Kaminski and his brother Steve, who is also a director at Colonnade Investments, as well as a couple of other investors he declined to name. He says another “highly strategic investor” is expected to chip in an additional $3.5 million before the year is out as the young firm ramps up its go-to-market push.

“This is a starting point,” Kaminski explains. “If we can commercialize (the process) and show its effectiveness, we think that there will be a lot of opportunities for us in other areas.”

The five-employee company is looking to add a senior researcher and several lab technicians to assist in ongoing trials aimed at proving the technology works consistently to preserve kidneys and stem cells. 

The plan, Kaminski says, is to spend the next two to three years cultivating potential customers and educating the market on a process that – while naturally established in certain animals – is still uncharted territory in humans.

“I think as people start to understand it, they get it quickly and they get the benefits of it quickly,” he says. “But again, changing how people think about things always takes a bit of time.” 

How big a splash CryoStasis makes will depend largely on how human trials pan out, Kaminski adds. 

While the path to commercialization in the heavily regulated biotech sector is notoriously long and expensive, he says the firm stands to benefit from exemptions for organ storage solutions that smooth the path to approval from authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

And if CryoStasis’s solution proves effective, Kaminski believes it won’t take long for one or both of its target markets to see the results.

“We’re lucky enough to have the technology developed at this point,” he says. “If both of them hit, then we’ve got the dog that caught the car.”  

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