Company: Clementia Pharmaceuticals
Title: CEO and founder
Clarissa Desjardins founded her first biopharmaceutical company at 26 while she was in grad school. The “little reagent company” Advanced Bioconcept was built on a discovery she made to use fluorescent peptides to map receptors instead of radioactive ones. Not only did that negate the radioactivity, but it turned out the stable and nontoxic fluorescent peptides could be used for more purposes.
She realized that she was fortunate to live in a country where taxpayers essentially fund scientific research that may or may not have future applications, and felt a responsibility as a member of that community.
“I felt that researchers had a responsibility to give back in terms of economic activity if they ever made a discovery,” Desjardins said.
She sold Advanced Bioconcept to Perkin Elmer in 1998, but that was just the beginning of Desjardins’ entrepreneurship. She next co-founded Caprion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech focused on proteomic biomarker discovery and drug development, with partner Lloyd Segal, who is now her husband. The two are no longer with the company, but Caprion continues to grow and today employs 100 people in Montreal.
In 2009, Desjardins became the CEO at the Centre d’excellence en médecine personnalisée (CEPMED), a Montreal federally funded think tank that promotes personalized medicine through research and education, and included public-private partnerships. One day, a Roche senior executive she worked with through the group flagged an article in Nature Medicine about a drug Roche had abandoned that looked to have promise in treating a particular rare disease. He knew she had started biotech companies in the past and told her if she would start a company to finance the clinical trials, he would do what he could to facilitate the outlicensing of the molecule from Roche.
So Desjardins quit her job and started Clementia Pharmaceuticals around that former Roche drug called palovarotene, which is a retinoic acid receptor gamma agonist. The first trials, now in late phase 3, have been for the treatment of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP), a rare disease in children that essentially causes muscle to turn to bone. Clementia is also investigating the use of palovarotene for multiple osteochondromas, another rare bone disease in which patients develop benign bone tumors. More recently, the company has started preclinical work for the use of palovarotene to treat dry eye disease.
Desjardins still feels her responsibility to give back, and she's grateful for the culture of entrepreneurship in North America where it’s “possible with an education and with a strong business plan to get funded for an entirely new idea.”
Her advice to budding entrepreneurs considering starting new businesses in life sciences is to surround themselves with good people. “Just go for it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? It won’t work. But that experience and that learning can serve you well for the next time.”
Desjardins earned a doctorate in Neurology and Neurosurgery from McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and was a Medical Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre.