Why Edmonton’s DrugBank is ubiquitous in the pharma world

When DrugBank launched almost four years ago, it wasn’t exactly brand-new. The online database had started in 2005 as a research project in the lab of U of A computing science professor Dr. David Wishart. Company co-founders Craig Knox and Mike Wilson had helped develop the tool as undergraduates and watched it grow into a leading Internet resource for free drug information.

“The first weekend we released it, the servers crashed because there was so much traffic coming in,” explains Craig Knox. “It was quite popular and grew in its popularity over the years.” Over the next decade, DrugBank became ubiquitous in the pharma world, with millions of global users ranging from university researchers and students to health professionals like pharmacists and physicians, and even members of the general public. The resource also attracted the attention of pharmaceutical and health information businesses.

“We wanted to take advantage of the commercial demand, grow a sustainable business, and help this product reach its full potential,” says Wilson. He and Knox struck a deal with the university to commercialize the product and set up shop at Startup Edmonton. There, the two transformed DrugBank from an academic resource into an online business. While researchers and the general public can still access a great deal of free information (“It’s in our DNA to make information available,” says Knox), commercial users must purchase a license in order to use the data and gain access to additional datasets.

Now DrugBank’s commercial clients include some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the World, as well as mid-sized companies, a growing number of pharma startups, and companies providing scientific reference software. “The value for the users is saving time by finding the information in one place,” says Wilson.

Each month, a million users visit the site, making DrugBank the most popular drug database in the World. It’s also the most comprehensive resource of its kind, including information on more than 20,000 individual drugs (not just approved drugs, but drugs in clinical trials and drug formulas that show potential), hundreds of thousands of different drug products, and half a million drug interactions.

Since pharma research is advancing rapidly, the database must be continually updated with new information. To do this, the company uses a team of nine ‘biocurators’ — representing pharmacy, medicine, biochemistry, and other fields — who comb the academic literature for new information to add to the resource daily.

“We could probably have a team of 100 people — there’s that much data out there,” Knox says. “Every day, there’s thousands and thousands of new studies. Staying on top of that much information is a challenge, but our team is really good at quickly identifying the most useful information and capturing it.”

Since taking their entrepreneurial leap three years ago, Knox and Wilson have taken advantage of many of the resources offered by Startup Edmonton. The organization’s mentorship and support opportunities (especially the Preflight workshop series) have helped them get a handle on basic business principles and lay the foundation to build a scalable global technology product, and running their company from the organization’s downtown facility has connected them with a network of diverse entrepreneurs.

“There are a lot of other companies in the space at Startup Edmonton and everyone’s at different stages,” says Wilson. “You can learn from each other, which is a really cool benefit.”

This profile was originally published on Startup Edmonton.

Written by Caitlin Crawshaw