The entrepreneurial medicine man
An immunologist-turned-businessman, Niclas Stiernholm ’89 is at the helm of a Canadian biopharmaceutical company making advances in the fight against cancer.
For the better part of the past century, doctors have treated cancer with chemotherapy drugs, localized radiation or a combination of the two. Sometimes malignant tumors disappear. Sometimes they shrink to a size where surgical removal is an option to keep the disease from spreading.
But cancer possesses certain resilience. Each year many thousands of people discover a new lump, can’t shake a recurring headache or begin to cough blood as they once again confront a demon they believed banished. Earlier treatments simply didn’t snare all of the original cancer.
“Original,” it turns out, is just another word for “cancer stem cells,” and that is where Niclas Stiernholm ’89 has found his life’s calling.
As chief executive officer of Stem Cell Therapeutics, a Canadian biopharmaceutical firm that raised $33 million late last year when it went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Stiernholm is leading a small team of researchers about to begin clinical trials of a therapy that has shown remarkable laboratory success in killing cancer stem cells for acute myeloid leukemia.
The implications extend far beyond leukemia. For a company whose earlier focus was on immunotherapy treatments to fight multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, the move into cancer research is making Stem Cell Therapeutics and Stiernholm a recognized name in biomedical research, and for all the right reasons.
“Though we’ve seen excellent progress in treatments for breast cancer and melanoma and some pediatric cancers in recent years, others like leukemia and ovarian cancer are still out there, needing much more progressive treatments,” says Michael Moore, a member of the board of directors of Stem Cell Therapeutics. “Nic feels totally committed to that ... and it shines out as one of his most endearing attributes.”
‘He knew what he wanted’
Stiernholm moved to the United States from Sweden in the early 1980s as a high school exchange student. After a year in rural Minnesota, he mailed dozens of query letters to American universities that fielded tennis teams, hoping his athleticism would help pay for a college degree. Elon was one of the few schools whose response not only offered him a spot on the team but also acknowledged academic opportunities for its varsity athletes.
A lackluster freshman tennis season, coupled with coaching changes and family issues, briefly took Stiernholm back to Sweden to fulfill mandatory military service. Two years later and determined to earn a degree, Stiernholm found help from a few former professors who cobbled together academic scholarships that returned him to Elon, where he competed again in tennis as a walk-on while eyeing medical school. His work ethic wowed his mentors.
“In the classroom, I had to really be on my toes for this guy. He could ask me questions that I had better be ready to answer,” says David Sissom, Stiernholm’s former Elon biology professor who today teaches at West Texas A&M University. “One of the things that was impressive about Nic was that even at that level he was reading academic journals. He wasn’t just relying on what you could give him in a textbook or a lecture.”
Other students took note, too. “Most of us, we all managed to graduate one way or another,” said George Pastidis ’89, an international student from Greece who befriended Stiernholm at Elon. “But Nic was different. … He knew what he wanted and he wouldn’t take less.”
Stiernholm graduated summa cum laude with a biology degree but dropped the idea of medical school. Sick people? Not his thing. What piqued his interest was immunology. He moved to Canada to pursue his doctorate at the University of Toronto, met his wife, welcomed two daughters and after a few years, concluded laboratory research wasn’t his calling, either. The commercial applications of science were more aligned with his passions.
With no business background, Stiernholm got creative. Upon graduating from the University of Toronto and conducting post-doctoral research, he spent the next six months offering expert opinions at no charge to biotechnology venture capital firms weighing investment opportunities. “That allowed me to say I was a ‘consultant’ to these groups,” he says with a laugh. “No one had to know I did it for free. It was resume padding but it was legit.”
So legit, in fact, that it landed him his first position in the business development office of Allelix Biopharmaceuticals. “He really understood the science, and that enabled him very quickly to sort out the wheat from the chaff,” Graham Strachan, a former chief executive officer of Allelix, says. “There’s a lot of science out there that’s very interesting and very good, but it’s not going to lead anywhere, at least not to a commercial goal. Nic’s background enabled him to sort out what was practical from what was simply academically curious and interesting, and he picked up the tools for commercially developing science.”
Over the next decade, Stiernholm steadily assumed additional business responsibilities, first at Allelix and later for the Canada-based YM BioSciences. In 2002 he joined Trillium Therapeutics as ceo, a position he held until Trillium merged with Stem Cell Therapeutics last year with the purpose of going public. Stiernholm remains in charge of the newly expanded company.
Finding his niche
Times had been tight until the success of the financing in December. Flush with cash and no longer reliant on revenues from selling some of their best technologies too early, Stiernholm and Stem Cell Therapeutics are pushing forward with clinical trials of a treatment that disrupts the very cells that dodge the body’s natural ability to fully fend off cancer.
“Cancer cells are pretty smart. They can learn how to evade the immune system by producing immunosuppressive proteins,” Stiernholm explains. “We’re looking to identify and target various substances that cancer cells produce to hide themselves from the immune system.”
One such substance is called CD47, which is produced by cancer cells, including cancer stem cells, to protect themselves from the patient’s own immune system. Stiernholm’s company has engineered a promising new protein that binds to CD47 and blocks its ability to send immuno suppressive signals, thereby allowing the patient’s own immune system to re-activate and destroy the cancer cells.
“He recognizes that medical need and commercial opportunity really overlap,” says Moore, Stem Cell Therapeutics board member. “His commitment to bioscience is not just to get rich, which is what everybody in business tries to do, but also to ameliorate human suffering.”
Two more traits Stiernholm’s friends and colleagues mention time and again are his love of family and genuine interest in other people. Strachan applauds the way Stiernholm balances his work and home lives. Moore credits Stiernholm with building and preserving a strong research team that has seen almost no turnover in recent years, a steadiness that is leading the company in a very promising direction.
Which brings Stiernholm’s success back to his Elon education. It took a few years to recognize how his liberal arts exposure influenced his future success, but talk with him today, and Stiernholm lists how religious studies and sociology courses help him build relationships—with other potential investors, he points out—in ways that other corporate executives don’t always grasp. When you have to relate to and interact with people you’ve never met before, he says, you need to find common ground.
His alma mater has taken note. The university honored Stiernholm in 2012 with the Elon College Distinguished Alumni Award in the Mathematical, Computing and Natural Sciences. His visit to campus to accept the award was his first in more than two decades, and he still marvels at the changes from his days studying science in a cramped Duke building. “The biggest thing to happen to Elon when I was there was the new tennis center,” he laughs. “Now, Elon’s huge, and it has changed from a college to a university.”
Part scientist and part entrepreneur, Stiernholm recognizes that in biopharmaceuticals, mergers and acquisitions are part of the business. There may reach a point in the next decade where Stem Cell Therapeutics is bought by a larger rival, and if so, what happens next in life is anyone’s guess. But he does know how to spot business opportunities, even if he hasn’t made any long-term plans.
“It’s a great time for science right now with the genomics revolution,” he says. “We are generating more than we can currently translate. Bioinformatics is really the bottleneck—too much data and too few resources to translate it. It’s in the eventual translation of these genetic data where new therapeutic and diagnostic opportunities will exist.”
For Stiernholm, the future is bright. For cancer? Perhaps not.