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With CEO Hat, Burks Helps ’Omics Scientists Find Grants

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Whether helping to build the GenBank database or crunching numbers as a computational biologist comparing fruit fly and human genes, Christian Burks has been looking at the big picture for a while. Burks helped establish and lead informatics pioneer Exelixis’s computational biology department in the late ’90s, and then went on to work as CSO of Affinium Pharmaceuticals in Toronto before founding a life sciences consultancy called Scienega. Today, he is CEO of the Ontario Genomics Institute, a Toronto-based nonprofit life sciences incubator. Established in 2000, the OGI is charged with helping Canadian scientists get funding for large-scale genomic and proteomic research projects.

“We’re not a bricks-and-mortar laboratory — we don’t do genomics ourselves,” Burks says, “but we secure funds for large projects, help the scientists put in applications that conform to the expectations of funding sources, and then do program management of funding sources.”

He says that OGI’s mission is three-fold: to help cultivate research programs; to provide guidance and funds for the commercialization of new or early-stage research and technologies; and to provide education and community outreach regarding the ethical and social impacts of these new advances. OGI is working to establish Canada, and Ontario in particular, as a leader in genomic and proteomic innovation.

After the completion of the Human Genome Project in the US, Burks says, “Canada had a sort of series of introspective moments about the fact that there wasn’t focused money for these [kinds of] large-scale projects in Canada. In terms of being able to say that Canada was on the map and contributing to, and in some cases hopefully leading, the charge on large-scale genomics and proteomics projects,” he says, “there just wasn’t the funding there.”

In response, a group of Canadian scientists got together, threw around some ideas, and “eventually, Genome Canada was established,” Burks says. The government-funded  nonprofit is now a major source of funding for genomic and proteomic research around the country. OGI, as well as additional public and private investments, help to round out the total investment. To date, OGI manages a research portfolio of more than 30 projects to the tune of about $500 million.

OGI is one of six genome centers across Canada and is resident at the MaRS (Medical and Related Sciences) building in Toronto, where one of its neighbors is the Structural Genomics Consortium, a multinational initiative to decipher as many protein structures as possible and deposit them into a publicly accessible database.

That consortium is one example of OGI’s efforts to expedite the process of getting new research out into the public domain. “The largest number of novel human structures going into PDB [Protein Data Bank] has come out of this one project, which has sites in Stockholm, Oxford, and Toronto,” Burks says. “It’s a classic genomics or proteomics project, in the sense of, ‘Let’s generate a resource, let’s engineer results and put them out there in a way that’s very well-defined — how we got the information and how we placed it in the public eye — so that the rest of the scientific enterprise can go forward much faster.’”

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