DrugBank's culture is helping it build critical infrastructure for healthcare

· The Pulse

DrugBank has been named one of Canada's best workplaces by the Great Place to Work Institute. The Edmonton-based company's debut at 19th in the under 50 employees category closely follows its success in raising $9 million of seed funding, led by Brightspark Ventures, earlier this month.

DrugBank, which offers the world's largest online drug information database, has been intentional about building a supportive workplace with its Thriving Lifestyle Compensation Philosophy, which aims to offer a healthy living wage, rewards for exceptional performance, and equal pay for equal work.

That compensation philosophy and its overall emphasis on culture was a key part of conversations with investors during the raise, co-founder and CEO Michael Wilson told Taproot.

"We're not just looking for a check. We're looking for people to become partners in our business. I think all the investors that have joined us were really impressed with our vision and the potential future possibilities, but culture played a big role in how they perceived the company," explained Wilson.

Those values have been part of DrugBank's foundation from the beginning, when it started in Prof. David Wishart's lab at the University of Alberta in 2006. Wilson said a book by Daniel H. Pink called Drive helped shape his initial thoughts around culture, and Shay Barker, director of people and culture, has played an integral role in developing that side of the business as well.

Wilson told Taproot that culture is increasingly important, as his business competes against other tech companies and the wider marketplace for talent, which is directly tied to the ability to grow. The other important factor is that DrugBank is building a company that is solving challenging problems, and it needs people to be at their best to think about how to tackle each one.

"It's not about grinding out as much output as you can. It's about having people that are engaged with their work, bringing their A-game, and feeling empowered. A lot of the things we've done in culture, also benefit the business ... which means the business has the best chance of success," Wilson said.

The fast-growing company is poised to add more team members in the next few months, with Wilson estimating that it will have more than 80 employees by the end of 2022. Those hires will be across the board, with a particular eye toward growing DrugBank's sales, marketing, and product teams.

As it expands, the plan to focus on culture remains, by developing more tools similar to the compensation policy, and clearly defining DrugBank's leadership principles. Its decision to be a remote-first company has also meant that it's equally committed to ensuring there's a system that encourages robust feedback.

Michael Wilson in front of a brick wall

Co-founder and CEO Michael Wilson was part of the academic project in Prof. David Wishart's bioinformatics lab at the University of Alberta, which eventually spun in DrugBank. (Supplied)

In addition to growing its team, DrugBank plans to use the $9 million in seed funding to invest in research and development, and expand its AI-powered technologies to "more effectively solve major industry problems." In support of that effort, the company signed on as one of the talent bursary sponsors of AI Week, which takes place May 24-27 in Edmonton.

Its core technology leverages natural language processing and various predictive models to process scientific evidence and information from sources and identify new types of evidence. By investing further, DrugBank will be able to get more efficient and its team of experts in pharmacology, pharmacy, and biochemistry will have access to improved tools to identify evidence.

"We're able to combine the human expertise with the data processing power of software and AI models to provide very high coverage, high breadth combined with high quality in our structured data. So we want to keep investing and accelerating to keep expanding our coverage of different kinds of information," Wilson said.

Part of DrugBank's offering is to provide datasets for academic users, and plans are in the works to engage the community and provide more support, in an effort to help more users with research projects or help them figure out how to work with data and do machine learning. "Ultimately, what our users want to do is solve a specific problem. We can help make that easier by giving them additional resources and training to help them ... get to their publication faster, get their research to have a bigger impact, etc," added Wilson.

At its core, DrugBank is focused on organizing and structuring the world's biomedical information, so it's easier to use. But that knowledge is getting more complicated, and the amount of data created on a daily basis is accelerating. It's a problem that touches on every part of the healthcare industry, from scientists in the lab trying to figure out the next medicine to create, to doctors tackling which medicine to use for a patient.

"The better we get at solving that problem, the bigger of an impact we can make on the healthcare industry ... to help create the next version of medicine," Wilson said.

"Our goal is to make everyone in healthcare better — augment their abilities and give them superpowers on how to use that information and use it to its full potential."