Ottawa Founders: Spiderwort uses plant-based materials to regenerate parts of the human body

Charles Cuerrier Spiderwort
Charles Cuerrier is the CEO and co-founder of Ottawa-based Spiderwort.
Editor's Note

Ottawa Founders is an occasional column prepared by the Capital Angel Network that celebrates leaders in the community who are helping to build the future.

There’s a term in psychology called “cognitive entrenchment,” which refers to the way certain concepts and beliefs become profoundly rooted in how we think, making us resistant to change and unwilling to accept new ideas. 

It’s basically the polar opposite of the way scientists work — the way they’re open to various viewpoints, forever inquisitive and always challenging the norm. 

It’s this kind of receptive, genius thinking that’s pushing boundaries at Spiderwort, an Ottawa-based startup that’s developing biomaterials to repair and regenerate the human body. The team’s innovative theories will one day treat people with spinal cord injuries and we have their enduring curiosity, an apple and a bunch of asparagus to thank. 

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Spiderwort co-founder and CEO Charles Cuerrier comes from a family of entrepreneurs, but it was his predilection for science that initially took him on a different journey. 

Cuerrier did his PhD in pharmacology at the University of Sherbrooke, completed his post-doctoral training in regenerative medicine at the University of Ottawa, and spent many years studying drug patterns. It wasn’t until Cuerrier started working with Spiderwort co-founders Andrew Pelling and Daniel Modulevsky at the Pelling Lab at the University of Ottawa (where scientists explore augmented biology and “biohacking”) that he began investigating the way various plants and other biomaterials could be used to reconstruct damaged or diseased tissue in the body. 

“We were trying different things,” recalls Cuerrier. “For example, we’d go to the grocery store and buy steaks just to remove cells and see what the created biomaterial could do. At one point, Daniel brought an apple into the lab and we decided to use the cellulose (natural fibres) from its flesh in our testing with living cells. To our surprise, it did what we hoped it would do — the living cells attached themselves to it and were able to multiplicate. It worked perfectly.” 

The team later put an apple cellulose scaffold into a mouse to see if the animal would reject or accept it, and “instead of seeing a reaction where the body tries to protect itself from it, we saw full-body integration, making it a living part of the mouse,” he says. 

“It was amazing. We showed the results to a pathologist and he said it was textbook — exactly what integration should look like. We were waiting for something like this to happen; it made us want to keep going.”

After the apple experiment, Pelling was at home cutting spears of asparagus for dinner and wondered if the veggie’s vascular bundles (tube-like tissues) could be used to repair spinal cord injuries. The idea was to implant part of the asparagus into damaged areas of the spinal cord to act as a bridge and help neurons reconnect. 

When the team tested asparagus fibres in rats, they once again saw incredible results; rats that were paralyzed from the waist down started moving their legs within 10 weeks. 

“I’ll always remember the night we were observing the animals and some of them started showing movement. We knew the body was accepting the material, and this suggested the same thing could help humans,” Cuerrier says. 

Spiderwort was officially founded in 2015 and, in subsequent years, its proprietary plant-based scaffolding and technology have resulted in two products. The first is CelluBridge, which is a solid (the scaffold) that’s implanted in the spinal cord and works to repair and regenerate the tissue. It was recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a breakthrough medical device in 2019. 

The second is CelluJuve, a cellulose-based dermal filler (in hydrogel form) that’s much easier to use; it’s injected under the skin and is mostly for cosmetic enhancement, like smoothing wrinkles or repairing skin deformations. 

“These two products are on either side of the spectrum. One is high risk and high return and has the ability to cure a condition that hasn’t been cured yet. The other is also high return but it’s lower risk,” says Cuerrier. “We believe there are many other things we can work on between these two extremes. We’ve opened a new category of biomaterial. Cellulose has been used in the past, but not in the way we’re using it. This is about the structure of cellulose Mother Nature created.”

The continuous success of repeated trials hasn’t just impressed pathologists, the findings have also struck a chord with angel investors across the country, and not just those with medical backgrounds. 

“We have had so many good people support us up front,” says Cuerrier. “Angels saw potential and believed in us. It seems like a crazy idea to use asparagus cellulose in humans, but they helped us close our friends-and-family round and good things have happened for our team since,” he says, adding angels from his local angel group, Capital Angel Network (CAN), have been enthusiastic champions. 

“I don’t think I’d ever start another company without involving angel investors. Other investors are supportive, but founders have a unique relationship with angels. I can email or call an angel from CAN — even one who didn’t invest in us but has experience we need — and they’re always willing to help.” 

And because the ecosystem has been so supportive of Spiderwort, Cuerrier shares his knowledge by offering advice and guidance to other startups. “This is especially important in the medical community, when you’re saving lives.” 

More than eight years in, Cuerrier and his growing team (there are 25 employees now) continue to move their work forward. Getting a medical device into the hands of surgeons is no easy feat. CelluBridge will likely be in clinical trials this year and the product will be put into about a dozen patients who have spinal cord injuries. After that, there will be even more studies before going to market. 

The process is long and arduous; every detail must be examined and validated by third parties (other scientists) and regulating bodies (Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) before a medical device can be used. 

“We are about to show that our products are safe. We’ve done so many safety studies and we’re able to show the world we have something that’s not only effective, but it’s also safe for humans. We must be sure it’s top notch and that’s what we’ve done over the last few years,” Cuerrier says. “Finally saying we’re going to be in clinic this year is a great feeling.” 

As someone who grew up around entrepreneurs, Cuerrier recognizes being a founder is much like being a scientist. 

“There’s a problem you’re passionate about, and whether it ends up being a product or service that can help, your goal is to fix it,” he says. “In this case, the material we’re using is like magic.

“Not only does an apple a day keep the doctor away, but it can also heal and repair the human body. That’s incredible.” 

Suzanne Grant is an entrepreneur who has built bootstrapped and equity-financed businesses in Canada, Australia and Qatar. Today, she supports business growth and positioning while sharing insights to demystify early-stage fundraising. Grant leads the Capital Angel Network as part-time executive director.

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