Edmonton startup's drug database used by millions worldwide

An Edmonton startup boasting the world’s largest online pharmaceutical knowledge database had its humble beginnings inside a University of Alberta lab.

Online database has information on more than 14,000 drugs

Co-founders Craig Knox and Michael Wilson started working on DrugBank when it started as a project in a University of Alberta bioinformatics lab. (Submitted by DrugBank)

An Edmonton startup boasting the world's largest online drug information database had its humble beginnings inside a University of Alberta lab.

"It's something that I never expected would be such a large part of my life back when I was working on it as a student," co-founder Craig Knox said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active on Monday.

DrugBank is now a database with information on more than 14,000 drugs with millions of users and customers in more than 20 countries. It's gone from two employees at its founding to a staff of 44 people. 

Knox began working on its first iteration in the summer of 2006 during his undergraduate degree. Fellow co-founder Michael Wilson was also part of the project inside Prof. David Wishart's bioinformatics lab.

"We were working feverishly on collecting a bunch of information around the world on drugs and putting them together into one place," Knox said.

The original project was an online academic resource that brought together information about chemical structures, which proteins drugs interact with and other details. That knowledge was previously scattered in textbooks and other resources.

The servers crashed the weekend it launched.

"We realized we had really filled a niche," Knox said.

As the amount of information in drug discovery and development continued to grow in the intervening years, they saw the potential to take the resource further. 

"It just becomes a big challenge to make sure that you always have the right information at the right time," Wilson said. He and Knox founded the company alongside Wishart in 2016.

A free online version is available to researchers around the world while customers can also pay for commercial licenses to access additional data.

The startup also successfully completed a round of investments in the fall. Knox said going forward there is also a lot of opportunities with artificial intelligence and algorithms.

"Edmonton is a home for a lot of advanced artificial intelligence," he said. "And so continuing to build those strengths within our company."

Growth during pandemic

While Wilson says business has grown during the pandemic, the last year has also see staff have to move to working from home.

"We didn't have the pandemic in our business plan, of course, as no one really did," Wilson said. "An exciting thing is that, just due to the nature of what we do, we've actually been able to impact research on COVID-19 substantially."

Wilson said more than 1,200 research publications have been published in the last year that leverages information from DrugBank in studying COVID-19.

"I'm very proud of what our team does every day and the impact we're able to make on drug development, on medical research and now on research for COVID-19."