A doctor using a tablet with a scientific graphic of a uterus floating above it.

Cyclica’s new-age AI is generating more non-hormonal contraceptive choices for women in developing countries

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to fight poverty, disease and inequity around the world. It recently awarded Cyclica, a Toronto-based biotech startup, a $2.4-million grant to develop new, non-hormonal contraceptives.

The grant enables Cyclica to apply its artificial intelligence-enabled drug discovery platform to the problem of accessible contraception. The goal is to create new, non-hormonal contraceptives that can be used on a global scale but with a focus on developing countries.

Cyclica is on a mission driven by the prospect of health equity—and it has found a new partner in the Gates Foundation, which shares its passion and determination.

For the 200,000 million-plus women worldwide who use contraceptives, non-hormonal birth control offers a safer, more effective option to better plan their families and their futures.

What drew the world’s second-largest charitable foundation to the small, proudly Ontarian company?

To be successful, we knew we would need to put together a team of the very best—and dedicated—biologists, chemists, AI researchers and computer scientists around. And we knew we would find them in Ontario

– Naheed Kurji,
Cyclica co-founder and CEO

“We have a unique approach to drug discovery,” says Naheed Kurji, Cyclica co-founder and CEO.

Cyclica’s innovative work is complex. Cyclica is using AI and machine learning, together with the vast library of genome data and the power of the cloud, to unlock the protein universe. This work also opens the opportunity to build a portfolio of medicines for the hundreds of conditions that have been ignored and poorly funded—and it can do it much faster and at a lower cost than traditional methods.

A two-year volunteer stint with Focus Humanitarian Assistance took Kurji to countries where diseases are rampant and resources scant. It shaped his corporate philosophy and the focus of his biotech firm. “Cyclica is going to change the drug discovery paradigm,” says Kurji.

Ontario’s talent and culture of innovation are driving big breakthroughs

Cyclica was created in 2014, and from the start, there was never any doubt that it would be headquartered in Toronto.

A graduate of both the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, Kurji was well aware of Ontario’s track record of medical breakthroughs and the formidable talent pool available in the province.

“To be successful, we knew we would need to put together a team of the very best—and dedicated—biologists, chemists, AI researchers and computer scientists around,” he says. “And we knew we would find them in Ontario.”

Cyclica staff on a boat on Lake Ontario, in front of the Toronto skyline.
Early on, Cyclica turned down the opportunity to relocate to an accelerator in Silicon Vallely because the company’s staff wanted to live and work in Toronto, Ontario. Today, Cyclica has partnerships with biotech players all over the world, including Brazil, India, China, Singapore, Korea and Australia.

Cyclica has grown from a handful of employees to 55, including small teams in the U.S. and the U.K. Many have been with the company for years. “We have a low turnover rate,” says Kurji, “in part because what we’re doing is groundbreaking, which is exciting, but also because we offer our people the opportunity to grow within the organization. It’s not unusual for an individual to start as a discovery scientist, for instance, and progress to a team lead. I’m proud that we’re training people for senior leadership roles.”

The fact that some may go on to work at new startups or create their own companies is all part of building Ontario’s ecosystem, says Kurji.

A government committed to helping companies make a difference

Kurji is quick to point out that as well as giving companies like Cyclica access to a steady pipeline of talent, Ontario offers a resource-rich, highly collaborative ecosystem that supports and nurtures companies from startup to scale-up.

There’s a network of incubators and accelerators, including MaRS, North America’s largest urban innovation lab, and more than a dozen research partnership programs and grants available, among them: Mitacs, FedDev and the Ontario Centre of Innovation.

To encourage companies to conduct research and development in Ontario, the province offers some of the most generous R&D tax credits available anywhere.

And, for companies looking to take their innovations globally, Ontario has international trade and investment offices in 13 key markets around the world—and they are staffed with experienced people familiar with their market regions.

Says Kurji, “We’ve found [the province] very helpful in opening doors.”

As for the future, Kurji’s focus is clear and unwavering: “Cyclica is advancing a drug discovery portfolio we’re convinced will impact health like never before.”

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