Event Reports

Popovich Inspires with Expo Keynote

Leo Chen - Monday, March 05, 2012

Brad Popovich, Genome BC’s Chief Scientific Officer, delivered an inspiring speech to delegates of SBN’s 8thAnnual Biotech Expo and Conference on Tuesday February 28th, 2012.

As Chief Scientific Officer of Genome BC, Popovich works to promote the organization’s ongoing scientific strategy, focusing on the science of genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics in BC to advance the Province’s economy in areas of strategic importance such as human health, forestry, fisheries, bioenergy, and agriculture.

Brad has led an amazingly fruitful career covering academic, industry, and non-profit sectors. He completed his MSc degree in Genetic Counseling from Sarah Lawrence College in 1978 and became one of the first genetic counselors to immigrate to Canada. He went on to complete a MSc and PhD in biochemical and molecular genetics respectively, at McGill University. During his graduate training period, he pursued application of genomic technologies to the diagnosis and management of human disease, a subject that he was deeply passionate about.

He credits much of his amazing career to the good advice he received from his Postdoctoral mentor, Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies, who told him to accept a great opportunity in San Diego, in spite of the low salary. To the chagrin of his family, he accepted and became the founding director of San Diego Children's Hospital DNA Diagnostic Laboratory in 1989. “If I had listened to the advice of some of my mentors, I wouldn’t be where I am today” Popovich said. While he was there, he translated several new genetic diagnostic tests in clinical practice, including tests for cystic fibrosis, Duchene muscular dystrophy, Becker muscular dystrophy, fragile X syndrome, and myotonic dystrophy. Despite his scientific achievements, his lack of business training was holding him back. The hospital was unhappy that he was not bringing in profits because he was offering genetic diagnostic services to patients at no cost. He soon realized that non-profit hospitals are not so non-profit after all. He had to quickly come up with a business plan to generate revenue and make his laboratory services self-sustaining. Subsequently, his laboratory was the first in the US to offer solely DNA-based paternity testing for a fee. Brad highlights that the key to success in any field is having the business skills and understanding the bottom line. He expressed his delight that his audience appeared eager to acquire business skills at events such as SBN’s Expo and Conference. His advice to scientists? Don’t shy away from business training! Brad is convinced that combining an advanced scientific training with a business degree, such as an MBA, is the way to go. “It doesn't matter where you go, you need to have basic business skills,” he said.

In 1992, Brad joined Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and became the founding director of the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at OHSU Hospital where he was responsible for translating genetic research findings into clinical tests used by referring physicians. In 1997 he was granted tenure and became the first Executive Director of the Genetic Service Laboratories at OHSU offering a complete suite of medical genomic laboratory services and providing academic training for a variety of researchers and clinicians. He also coauthored the first comprehensive genetic privacy legislation passed into US law (Oregon 1995) and helped to develop quality assurance guidelines for genetic diagnostic laboratories. He also pioneered the forensic use of DNA technology, and assisted in several criminal cases using DNA based forensic evidence, including the O.J. Simpson trial.

Brad left OHSU in 2001 to work in the private sector when he joined Xenon Pharmaceuticals in Vancouver, from 2001-2005. In 2005, he moved to Sirius Genomics as Chief Operating Officer, and President and Chief Executive Officer from 2006-2009. Having served key roles in academic, non-profit and industrial settings, Brad offers several interesting observations. He says that academia and industry are remarkably similar and the training and skill sets required to succeed in both are essentially the same. One key difference is that the end result in industrial research is making a profit, so if the project is not likely to turn a profit, you have to be ready to stop the research. Another interesting observation that Brad offers his audience is that scientists in academia and industry do not talk to each other, because the two sectors essentially have a different culture.

Brad acknowledges that these are tough economic times, but remains optimistic about a quick recovery. “The future, it’s unbelievably bright”, he says.

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