Trillium Therapeutics Inc.: An Immunotherapy Company Ahead of its Time Becomes a Homegrown Success

Trillium Therapeutics Inc. is a Toronto-born clinical stage immuno-oncology company conceived at the University of Toronto, where its president and CEO, Dr. Niclas Stiernholm and other key Trillium executives did their PhD work.

Trillium is also a homegrown success story as one of the few startups of its kind in Canada that has made it big by Canadian standards.

Trillium is developing the next-generation of immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer. Its lead program is a SIRPaFc antibody-like fusion protein, consisting of the CD47-binding domain of human SIRPa linked to the Fc region of a human immunoglobulin, which targets CD47 to prevent cancer cells from delivering a “do not eat” signal to macrophages. High expression of CD47 by tumor cells has been correlated with more aggressive disease and poor survival. SIRPαFc is initially being developed as a therapy for hematological malignancies, but also holds promise as a treatment of solid tumors.

“We have almost quadrupled in size in two years…and have moved to a state-of-the-art building where we can have at least 70 people,” says Dr. Stiernholm, “We’re creating jobs and starting to hire post-doctoral graduates from local universities, so we’re particularly proud of what Trillium has become.”

It wasn’t always like this Dr. Stiernholm points out. Trillium Therapeutics’ founders fought for 10 years to grow. They knew they had a great scientific asset, but it was a struggle to stay afloat and get funding, as there was no investor community in the Toronto region that understood the immunotherapy sector, according to Dr. Stiernholm. “Many people didn’t believe that the immune system could be used to fight diseases like cancer at that time.”

A day of reckoning came in 2012, when Trillium faced either going out of business or making a very bold, risky move. The 12-person Trillium team opted to take their company public. They identified a Calgary-based shell company with no assets, but listed on TSX Venture Exchange and merged with it, immediately raising $3 million from Canadian retail investors. Trillium then made the leap from the Venture Exchange to the TSX Exchange and also cross listed on the NASDAQ to access the more sophisticated, larger investors.

The key to Trillium Therapeutics’ success, he believes, was that they had the right asset at the right time, the right news flow and stock trading volume, and they were ready to tell a great story to the right audience. In 2013, they took their story to the U.S. markets and were able to raise $33 million (Cdn.) and another $70 million (Cdn.) in 2015, all from U.S. healthcare investors.

For Trillium, gaining access to U.S. healthcare funds was the turning point. “To put it in perspective, we raised $20 million over 10 years in Canada, but in the last two years alone, we’ve raised $100 million through U.S. healthcare funds and investors. A big part of our success was going public,” he said.

Dr. Stiernholm contends that access to U.S. markets is critical for any Canadian or Toronto-based health sciences company starting up today. Research takes time and is expensive, so it requires a major investment of capital. It isn’t just the size of the U.S. Exchanges that can’t be matched in Canada, notes Dr. Stiernholm, “We don’t have large healthcare funds here or investors who are deeply knowledgeable in the health and sciences sector, as not many Canadian investors have worked in the health sector previously…. In the U.S. it’s almost a prerequisite to have worked at Amgen, Genentech or Biogen.”

Despite their success with U.S. investors, Trillium Therapeutics chooses to stay and grow here in the Toronto region, rather than move to the U.S. Why? Dr. Stiernholm sees Canada’s, and particularly the Toronto region’s very young health and sciences industry as fertile ground for his company’s further growth. Being the third largest city in North America, the region is an enormous hub for innovation and is considered one of the top research health clusters in the world employing over 100,000 people.

Dr. Stiernholm also cites fewer competitors, a small and intimately connected support ecosystem and a relatively untapped world-class talent pool as compelling reasons to remain on home turf. “To compete in the U.S. you have to compete with another 300-400 American companies like ours. Our strength and competitive advantage is here…. It wasn’t a coincidence that we just bought a local Toronto company to keep growing. It’s not a coincidence that we’ve spent a lot of money with academic labs here, that we hire local Canadian graduates. That’s our competitive edge against U.S. companies.”

Dr. Stiernholm has big plans for Trillium Therapeutics as he looks to the future. “We are developing this company to be the first Canadian Genentech… The ultimate goal is to create an institution where young scientists and entrepreneurs can go and get training and then go out and create their own products and companies. That’s difficult these days, because as soon as you’re successful, someone will buy you… but that’s still our corporate goal.”

This is a bold vision and one that Dr. Stiernholm firmly believes is the road to success not only for his company, but for the entire Toronto region Human Health and Sciences cluster. There’s just one piece he says needs to be solved – building up our region’s commercialization infrastructure. “We’ve got to get knowledge, discoveries and innovation out of academia and incubators…and into the hands of investors and entrepreneurs.”

With this in place, Dr. Stiernholm believes it’s inevitable that the Toronto region will succeed in creating a biotech industry that is a global showpiece.

By: Carol Davies