Devonian Health Group (TSX-V:GSD): Efficient botanical drug development

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TSX-V listed company Devonian Health Group is a late-stage botanical pharmaceutical corporation that utilizes innovative therapeutic approaches designed to target unmet medical needs across the globe, following a more efficient drug development pathway for prescription botanical products.

President and CEO Dr André Boulet has vast experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech fields, standing out by combining strengths in applied science, business and finance. Since 2005, Dr Boulet has been leading the development of the technology and products owned by Devonian Health Group, raising more than $40M in private and public equity. Here he talks to The Canadian Business Quarterly about the benefits of working with botanical drugs, the company’s new science-backed cosmeceutical range, and the exciting avenues for growth in Devonian’s future.

Vast experience in drug development

Dr Boulet achieved his PHD in physiology at Québec’s Université Laval, before moving to the United States to undertake postdoctoral study in biochemistry-biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I worked in the pharma world for quite a few years,” Dr Boulet says. “I managed the clinical trial development of different drugs within Marion Merrell Dow. I went then back to school at York in England as a trainee in economics, in the Pharmacoeconomics department.”

After his economics education, Dr Boulet went on to lead the reimbursement program on a number of products for Hoechst Marion Roussel, before becoming partner in a venture capital fund in Montreal called BioCapital.

“Then I found [the] technology which is now in the Devonian Health Group,” he says, “and I financed it with myself, my family and my own angel network – with $50m invested in the company.”

Having worked in botanical drug development before, Dr Boulet started the company by taking advantage of new FDA regulations in the US allowing companies to use plants to develop prescription medicine.

“Devonian Health Group started as a botanical drug company, with at the beginning only one product, which was the anti-inflammatory drug we have in development right now, and we had a vision to have also a cosmeceutical unit.”

Working with plants often leads to the discovery of byproducts with additional applications. This was the case when the company discovered R-Spinasome®, a patented anti-oxidant molecule that became part of its Purgenesis™ anti-aging cream.

Devonian Health Group went public in 2017, and conducts drug development with the aid of research from the University of Québec, where a chance discovery by a student found that part of the molecule they were working on was an anti-inflammatory drug.

The company works with four plant types onsite at its extraction facility in Quebec, the only one of its kind in Canada, purpose built in order for the company to safely run botanical drug developments.

With the risk of contamination surrounding botanical products, Devonian could not find a pharmaceutical facility willing to house its materials during the trial, and was forced to design its own sterile facility to accommodate them.

Faster and cheaper development

“Botanical drug development is an interesting field when you come from the pharma world,” Dr Boulet explains, “because it allows you to move much faster and less costly than regular drugs in what we call the New Chemical Entities (NCEs).”

These significant benefits were evidenced during both Pre-clinical and Phase I of the group’s Thykamine™ development, both of which were completed within eighteen months, as opposed to the 3-5 years it would usually take for an NCE.


“It saves a lot of time and money to reach the proof of concept. Phase II is the key component of drug development, where you realize if the drug works or not, and then [in] Phase III the regular rules for an NCE apply to a botanical drug.”

The group is currently using its anti-inflammatory drug, Thykamine™, to develop a treatment for ulcerative colitis, for which it has completed a Phase II proof of concept, and is moving into a larger Phase II next year to continue development.

“We have an ongoing Phase II clinical trial in eczema, it should be completed in the coming months. We’re going to move then into the pediatric population, because physicians don’t want to prescribe corticosteroid to kids.”

In addition, the company is developing a product to treat radiodermatitis, relevant to the nearly 50% of cancer patients receiving radiation treatment. Around 95% of these patients suffer from radiation beams burning the surrounding tissue of the affected area.

“We have a very good program there, where so far, we have some preliminary data, we protect the surrounding tissues, so obviously it would be a medical device application – so this is ongoing as well.”

Also in Phase II is a program for treating inflammatory acne. The group is developing a specific formulation which would include Thykamine™ to help nearly 85% of adolescents who are affected by acne.

“At the end it will have taken about six years to develop the [eczema and colitis] indications,” Dr Boulet explains, “with an overall cost of $90-100m, compared to a New Chemical Entity which is now, as reported by the pharma industry, close to $1bn.”

The power of FDA approval means that North America is a significant focus. Once a drug is FDA approved, it’s approval rate across other countries increases dramatically as other agencies follow suit.

“We will file all the reports to all countries around the world, probably not alone but with a partnership with big pharma. There are quite a few botanical drugs already on the market worldwide, so the big [pharmaceuticals] are coming there.”

Science-backed cosmetic range

In addition to its therapeutic developments, Devonian Health Group is developing a cosmetic range, Purgenesis™ Cosmeceuticals, working on the basis that cosmetic products backed by science have the greatest market potential.

“The anti-aging treatment [we have developed] is patented,” Dr Boulet explains, “and everything we do, we do at the pharmaceutical standard, which that means it’s double-blind clinical study.”

This means that every one of the group’s cosmetic products will be compared in a double-blind clinical trial to prestige brand products. With the anti-aging cream, the results of this process have made it clear that Devonian is handling things a little differently.

“We’ve been told that we are the first company in that world that is mentioning that there is a placebo effect, and the massage effect around the eyes that treats the wrinkle. This is why we are marketing these products to Canadian dermatologists only.”

Additionally, the anti-aging product has been accredited by the Canadian Dermatological Association, making these products the only ones sold by dermatologists across the country to have been so.

“It is very good for us, because they market to physicians, and they have a network of dermatologists, so the goal here is we deal only with physicians in everything that we do at Devonian.”

Devonian Health Group head office

 

As a result, dermatologists have become aware that the company has further sun-care and skin products in the pipeline, offering photoprotection against Blue light, Infrared A and UVA/UVB, lending extra credibility to its product offering.

With a stretch-mark program on the way as well, Devonian has a few formulations that will reach the market by early- or mid-next year, promising a sales increase. Additionally, the company has recently been awarded the Best Anti-Aging Skin Treatment Technology 2018 from UK-based LuxLife magazine.

A growing business

Early in 2018, the Devonian Health Group acquired a specialty pharmaceutical company called Altius Healthcare, which was focused on acquiring and in-licensing safe and innovative medicines and healthcare products.

“They reviewed what we had in our pipeline, and we sat together and they said there was [a chance] to keep sales in Canada for Devonian, because globally the sales in Canada represent only 3% of the market.”

With such a small market share, Devonian benefitted from Altius’ sales and marketing acumen, which helped the company keep the Canadian share away from big pharmaceutical companies.

“When we develop a drug, it’s always good to have feedback from the sales and marketing people, to be sure that we collect the data we will need, and also if we are targeting the right [areas] from a marketing point of view.”

In addition, Devonian benefitted from the existing structure within Altius, which had existing sales of around 10 million, helping attain between $1.5-2bn in revenue, which the company was able to put into holding to decrease the need for new investment.

“Right now, obviously Altius continues to license the distribution of NCE and other products for the Canadian market,” Dr Boulet says. “We bring them our pipeline, so there will be growth in the revenues there.”

Further growth will come from the expansion of the company’s botanical drug program, which it expects to see grow rapidly over the coming years as the demand for botanical products for humans continues to rise.

“We expect to have another arm, which is animal health. As people see companion animals as family members, Devonian’s goal is to offer innovative medicines to the entire family. We are coming with products there. Our Thykamine™ has application on the vet side, because the largest market in veterinary is the one with eczema for dogs and cats.”

In the long term, the company is keen to expand as wide as it possibly can within its field. “The full name of the corporation is Devonian Health Group – so we really want to be a health group [which brings] new innovative products in human and veterinary, all validated through a pharmaceutical development pathway.”

Find out more about Devonian Health by visiting www.groupedevonian.com.

ProMIS Neurosciences (TSX:PMN): Targeting the root cause of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases

Most of us know someone who has been affected by Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a devastating, brain-wasting affliction and the most common form of dementia. The 2018 World Alzheimer’s Report reveals there are 50 million people in the world with dementia, a global community around the size of South Korea or Spain. About two thirds, have Alzheimer’s disease. These numbers are expected to more than triple by 2050.

There’s no effective therapy for Alzheimer’s but that’s not for lack of effort. Some of the most successful pharmaceutical companies in the world have exerted considerable effort to find a cure, but they’ve yet to cross the finish line. Thankfully, this could be about to change. Canadian researchers at a young, Toronto-based biotech firm, have received several patents for a new drug discovery platform that allows them to develop medicines that very precisely target the root cause of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The Canadian Business Quarterly spoke with CEO Dr. Elliot Goldstein about his team’s approach to what experts are calling a pivotal shift in drug development that’s renewing hope for an Alzheimer’s cure.

“This is a very exciting time in the Alzheimer’s community,” explained Dr. Goldstein. “We’ve learned some hard-won lessons over the past decade or so. Now, better understanding of what causes Alzheimer’s has spawned a new generation of drug development efforts that are focused on the right target.”

For decades, the Alzheimer’s drug development community believed amyloid beta—a naturally occurring substance that forms clumps in the brain—could become dangerous for some people as they aged; much like how a normal cell might become cancerous. The so-called “amyloid hypothesis” held that sometimes these clumps—commonly known as “plaque”—would strangle brain cells, leading to their death. The amyloid hypothesis alleged that by targeting plaque in the brain, researchers could halt Alzheimer’s disease. This belief guided Alzheimer’s drug development for nearly 25 years.

10 clinical trials that never produced an effective medicine called this theory into question. However, these “failures” deepened the research community’s knowledge of Alzheimer’s in some important ways. Namely, that there are many kinds of amyloid in the brain; most kinds are benign. However, one kind is particularly toxic, the toxic oligomer. In 2017, Dr. Eliezer Masliah, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, Division of Neuroscience, urged drug developers to redirect efforts at the toxic oligomer.

“The amyloid hypothesis is sound, but it needs a very important update,” explained Dr. Goldstein. “It’s not plaque that causes Alzheimer’s disease—as we had long thought—it’s the toxic oligomer. The resulting shift in drug development that we’re starting to see is predicated on what we’re calling Version 2 of the amyloid hypothesis. V.2 reflects our matured understanding of the deadly role the toxic oligomer plays in Alzheimer’s progression.”

There are now several hundred articles that implicate the toxic oligomer as the root cause of Alzheimer’s. Significantly, data also show it’s a root cause of other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, a nervous system disorder that affects movement, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), in which nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord deteriorate. The good news: ProMIS is developing new medicines for all three. It’s the clear front-runner in the race to stop Alzheimer’s by selectively targeting the toxic oligomer. Initial data show ProMIS’ potential therapy, called PMN310, effectively neutralizes the toxic oligomer and prevents brain cell death.

How ProMIS is able to scale this summit ahead of many heavy hitters in drug development is where the real story begins. In order to develop a precise way to attack the toxic oligomer, ProMIS had to build a better mousetrap. That’s because today’s methods for working with highly unstable drug targets like the toxic oligomer don’t work. Enter Dr. Neil Cashman, professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC), neuroscientist at the Brain Research Center, academic director of the Vancouver Coastal Hospital ALS Center, and a past recipient of the prestigious Jonas Salk Prize for biomedical research. Dr. Cashman has dedicated his academic career to finding new ways to attack bad proteins like the toxic oligomer.

“Today’s drug discovery methods have developed some wonderful medicines but for the toxic oligomer, they deliver drug candidates that are as precise as a shotgun: You hit a lot of things, and maybe you hit your target,” explained Dr. Goldstein. “Our unique platform delivers drug candidates that act like a sniper. This allows exacting precision on the toxic oligomer, reducing the potential for side effects related to targeting the non-toxic forms of amyloid beta. This kind of precision hasn’t been available before. Not only could we potentially avoid the side effects of prior therapies in development, we could also offer patients higher doses, which would have a positive impact on effectiveness. A highly effective dose of medicine is truly the holy grail of any therapy, and this is what our platform could allow us to do for these terrible diseases.”

The ProMIS™ platform is a unique marriage between physics and medicine. On the medical side, the platform incorporates two decades of Dr. Cashman’s research, patents and publications (more than 300 and counting). But it doesn’t end there. Dr. Cashman works hand-in-hand with his physics counterpart, Dr. Steven Plotkin, a professor at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Dr. Plotkin has held the Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Molecular Biophysics, is a past recipient of the prestigious Sloan Fellowship, and is an associate member of the Genome Sciences and Technology and Bioinformatics programs at UBC. Together, Drs. Cashman and Plotkin, ProMIS’ Chief Scientific Officer and Chief Physics Officer, respectively, are hard at work developing a generation of medicines that can selectively target these highly unstable, “shape-shifters,” as Dr. Goldstein describes the toxic oligomer.

ProMIS Neurosciences have received several patents for a new drug discovery platform that allows them to develop medicines that very precisely target the root cause of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases

 

“ProMIS’ drug discovery platform reflects the groundbreaking scientific discoveries of some of the best minds in Canada,” said Dr. Sharon Cohen, medical director of Toronto Memory Program. “The result is a radically new way to target the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease, which we desperately need. Our deepest hope is that this can successfully deliver long-awaited disease modifying treatment. When it does, we can share in the pride of knowing that it began here in Canada.”

In late 2018, ProMIS announced new drug candidates for Parkinson’s disease. Next up, ALS. “Research shows the toxic oligomer is also a root cause of these diseases,” shared Dr. Goldstein. “Simply substitute ‘amyloid’ for the protein involved in the disease. For Parkinson’s, the toxic oligomer derives from the protein alpha synuclein. For ALS, the toxic protein derives from TDP43 (Tar DNA Binding Protein). We plan to develop highly validated drug candidates for each disease. And, because our platform is so powerful, we believe we can progress these candidates very quickly.”

To say this is welcome news to the desperate disease communities currently without effective therapies would be an understatement. While developing new drugs is risky business, Canada has a strong, international reputation for delivering breakthrough, best-in-class medications for several diseases without effective therapies. We look forward to adding ProMIS to this long list of accomplished biotech firms that call Canada their home.

Find out more about ProMIS Neurosciences by visiting www.promisneurosciences.com or by following them on Twitter at @ProMISinc and LinkedIn.

NxGold (TSX-V:NXN): Enhancing shareholder value

A Vancouver-based junior gold explorer listed on the TSX Venture, NxGold is an exploration and development company focused on pursuing high grade gold opportunities in world-class mining districts.

A lawyer with over 25 years’ experience in exploration and mining, Chris McFadden is NxGold’s President and CEO. Mr McFadden spoke recently with The Canadian Business Quarterly about the benefits of mining in world-class districts, the company’s experienced and committed team, and the exciting opportunities NxGold is pursuing to enhance value for shareholders.

Early-stage gold exploration

Since its inception in 2016, NxGold’s primary focus has been on two gold exploration projects. The first is the Kuulu project in Nunavut, Canada, and the second is the Mt. Roe project, located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

“You probably couldn’t find two more diverse climates in which to operate,” Mr McFadden says. “In both cases we’re in early-stage gold exploration, and we’re looking for high-grade gold, large volume deposits, which would lead to mining operations eventually.”

The route towards these projects has been a long one. After years working in the mining industry, Mr McFadden moved into a more entrepreneurial space, founding a company called NexGen Energy Ltd with NxGold’s current Chairman, Leigh Curyer.

“It was a uranium exploration junior based in Canada. NexGen had some extraordinary success in discovering the Arrow project, and along the journey of building that company over the last 7 or 8 years, we picked up a shell company.”

The world-class Arrow uranium project is a project in Canada which, according to a PEA released in July 2017, is expected to produce 18.5m lb uranium per year over an initial 14.4-year mine life, greatly surpassing the production of the world’s biggest uranium mines.

The shell picked up by NexGen from a previous transaction was soon sitting in its corporate structure without a specific purpose. It only became clear what to do with it when a shareholder bought forward a proposition.

“He said he was impressed with how we worked, and how the company had achieved its success, and he mentioned that he had a gold exploration project in Nunavut, and he was keen to explore the possibilities of entering a transaction around that project.”

Towards the end of 2016 the transaction was completed. The result was the formation of NxGold, with the company entering into an agreement with that NexGen shareholder to work on the Kuulu project in Nunavut.

The company has since added the Mt. Roe project, and now finds itself in an excellent position to push forward with its exploration. Although both projects are still at an early stage, the hope is high for significant results.

“As an explorer, I would like to think we’re on the cusp of making a discovery. That’s the exciting part of what we do. We take a very systematic approach to exploration. We’ve had success with NexGen, and we’re using the same methodology, the same discipline. We don’t madly and blindly pursue exploration just for the sake of it.”

The two projects being undertaken by the company have been carefully chosen for their suitably, with both being considered amongst the best districts in the world for mining, sharing conditions that make them perfect for exploration.

Kuulu project: Nunavut, Canada

“One of the areas that I would say to shareholders provides great opportunity is what we’ve got at Kuulu in particular,” Mr McFadden says. “Once we gain access to that project, we’ve got significant exploration potential for a discovery there.”

Although the plan is to progress both projects at the same time, the project at Kuulu is currently delayed, as the company waits on an outstanding surface license renewal with the local Inuit association.

The Nunavut region in northern Canada is not currently producing a significant level of mining output, but its potential to do so is huge. A distance of just 40km away from the town of Rankin Inlet, the region is well set up to be prosperous in the future.

“Rankin Inlet is on the western shores of Hudson Bay, in Nunavut. That town is the epicenter of mining development in the area. A company called Agnico Eagle has been operating at Meadowbank for a long period of time, about 80km from Rankin Inlet.”

NxGold is an exploration and development company focused on pursuing high grade gold opportunities in world-class mining districts

Agnico Eagle is in the process of constructing a major operation at the Meliadine mine, situated roughly between the NxGold project and Rankin Inlet. Both operations benefit from being served by excellent infrastructure and support networks.

“There’s an airport [at Rankin Inlet] that’s serviced by jet planes from Winnipeg on a daily basis, there’s a port there that operates in summer months. There’s a workforce, there are trained people, there are mining services groups there.”

These groups are interested in expanding their operations with other companies, and the local community is likewise keen to see training and employment for its youth. It is an area that is extremely supportive of mining.

The Agnico Eagle project is of particular importance to NxGold’s plans. A large high-grade deposit that is soon to be in operation, the impressive work at Meliadine bodes well for good mining along trend to the west.

“We’re on the same structure as Meliadine, the same sort of rocks, fantastic soil anomalies, and really strong results in boulders at surface, very high gold assays from those boulders – beyond 400 grams a ton in some cases.”

Having been underway for a number of years, the Nunavut project has drill-ready targets, meaning drilling can start as soon as the necessary license is secured. All signs point to successful mining in the region, promising to significantly enhance value for shareholders.

Mt. Roe project: Pilbara, Western Australia

As it waits for the license needed to move forward with the Kuulu project, the company is currently focusing efforts on the Pilbara region. “In terms of work on the ground,” Mr McFadden says, “the Mt. Roe project in Western Australia is progressing.”

“The Pilbara region is home to the Australian iron ore industry, where majors such as Rio Tinto and BHP, as well as Fortescue Metals, produce huge volumes of iron ore for export to global markets, and in particular the Asian markets in China, Japan and South Korea.”

Between these three main producers, and several others in the region, there are around 600m tons of high-quality iron ore going out of the Pilbara region each year, making it one of Australia’s leading export earners.

“So the Pilbara, over the last fifty or sixty years, has become perhaps the premier mining district in the world in terms of value of production and volume of material that’s going out. There’s a very mature and well-established mining industry in that area.”

This long history of mining success means there is significant infrastructure already in place in the area, comprised of ports, rail, power generation, as well as an incredibly strong mining support sector.

“It’s a highly successful area in which to be operating,” Mr McFadden says, “so as a small explorer in the area, we’re able to take advantage of this fantastic infrastructure and support services that are in the region.”

Located 30km south of the coastal town of Karratha, the Pilbara region provides access to an airport running daily flights to the capital of WA, Perth, as well as being home to the Port of Dampier, from where large quantities of the iron ore mined in the region are shipped.

“There’s all the surrounding support services and infrastructure, that means that our project can be managed and operated from Karratha, and things are cheap there because of the volume of material that’s coming in.”

In the Pilbara, the company is not yet at drilling stage. More groundwork is needed over the coming months, following which there will be drill targets in place by the end of the year, putting the two projects at a comparable stage of exploration maturity.

“We have nuggets [of gold] at surface. You can bend down and scrape with your fingers, and pick out nuggets very close to surface. The potential we have there is to find the source of that gold. We’re already halfway there, we know we’ve got gold.”

In addition to the surface nuggets, there is also gold visible within the soil stream sediment sampling, over an extended strike length. The next step is therefore to narrow down the samples to provide more precise information.

“[We’ll] use that with the geophysics we have, and the mapping, and the metal detecting, to determine where exactly we’re going to drill, and hopefully we find the actual source of that gold that we’re finding at surface.”

In safe hands

With a vastly experienced management team and a board with significant contacts and experience in a number of sectors, NxGold is well placed to deliver significant value to current and potential shareholders.

“One of the key members of any exploration team is the Vice President of Exploration. Our VP Ex is a gentleman called Darren Lindsay. A highly experienced gold geologist, he has over twenty years of experience in mineral exploration across a number of continents.”

Mr Lindsay adds real value to the exploration team, having worked for both junior and major companies, such as BHP, Miramar and Kodiak Exploration, at various project stages. He has also worked extensively across Canada, including significant previous experience in Nunavut, with lots of exploration success.

“Our CFO, Janine Richardson, likewise has over 30 years’ experience in mining. She’s been involved in the gold industry in particular, with companies like Placer Dome, Rio Alto Mining and others. So again, vast experience and a very safe pair of hands.”

The company’s board boasts an equally impressive array of experienced members, starting with Chairman Leigh Curyer, an integral part of NxGold’s formation. Mr Curyer trained as an accountant, but has since amassed many years’ experience in mining.

“[Leigh] has been involved for a long time in very strategic roles. He’s a former CFO of Southern Cross Resources, which became Uranium One, and he’s also been in the private equity business. He ran Accord Nuclear Resources, reviewing global uranium assets for First Reserve, and has extensive experience in uranium in particular.”

Also on the board is Toronto-based Director Richard Patricio, a strategic thinker with a string of connections in the Toronto capital markets, connections that have proved beneficial for the company in helping raise money in Canada.

“Trevor Thiele is head of our Audit Committee,” Mr McFadden says. “His experience has largely been in major Australian agribusiness companies, like Elders. He’s been involved in IPOs, capital raisings and corporate reorganizations.”

Last but not least on the board is Perth-based Director Karl Laufmann, who has a strong background working in the Australian capital markets, giving him great experience with junior miners in the country.

This impressive team has already proved its worth in creating value for shareholders. The company is currently in excellent financial condition, putting it in the perfect position to complete the two exciting projects it’s engaged in.

“We’re currently funded – we have approximately $4m of cash. We completed a capital raising in June, that was very successful. We’re funded for the work that we want to do this year and into next.”

The company has approximately 81m shares outstanding, with 47m warrants, meaning there are about 135m shares on a fully-diluted basis. There is no debt and several other assets, including securities, making the company’s total working capital around $4.5m to $5m.

“We’re very much a results-driven and value-adding group that looks to enhance shareholder value,” Mr McFadden concludes, “and we believe we have that potential there with these two projects.”

Find out more about NxGold by visiting www.nxgold.ca.

Virtual High School: Canada’s education pioneers

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A pioneer of online learning in Canada, Virtual High School aims to build high quality and engaging course content within a setting tailored to the individual student. The school was founded on the belief that the internet’s ability to liberate each student’s start date and pace through the course will revolutionize national education.

Steve Baker is Principal, Founder, and CEO of Virtual High School. The school began in 1995 by offering a single Biology course. Today it offers 72 different courses and employs 73 administrative and content development staff, as well as 100 teachers, that serve over 8,000 students from all over the world. Mr Baker spoke with The Canadian Business Quarterly about the wide range of courses the school offers, the challenges faced in taking it private, and the huge achievement of breaking into the US market.

A spark of inspiration

The idea for Virtual High School began in the late 1980s. Working with young offenders in Bluewater Secondary School, part of the now Avon Maitland District School Board, Mr Baker noticed a lack of educational stability for these young people, who found themselves in and out of classes throughout the year.

“We had to have our courses designed such that [the students] could pick it up at any point in time,” he explains. “For me, that was a new and innovative idea, about curriculum and schooling – that it doesn’t have to be in a linear manner. It can be punctuated.”

After Bluewater, the school board installed Mr Baker as head of an alternative school based under a grandstand at a race-course, where he received students that were unable to be placed into regular schools throughout the board.

“I was responsible for their education, and again, their attendance was sporadic. So that concept of the progression through the course not being in a nice, neat [format] went out the window underneath that grandstand building.”

After three years, Mr Baker was moved back to a traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ classroom. He admits that the ideas picked up during this time stayed with him, eventually leading him towards the establishment of Virtual High School.

“It certainly wasn’t my intention to be a business owner. I was a chemistry and biology teacher, and business was the last thing from my mind. But, when we wrote our first course in ’95, it was written because [there were] no more new textbooks.”

Being asked by his principal to work exclusively with textbooks from the 1950s meant the internet promised something new and exciting. By learning HTML language, Mr Baker was able to move course content online and begin teaching his students in a different way.

“The business aspect was years down the road,” Mr Baker says. “Up to this point it was just a love of teaching, and a desire to make sure the students had the best information available to them, and of course the internet afforded that.”

Perfecting a private education model

After spending its early years working closely with an Ontario school board, Virtual High School broke with the board and moved to a private education model, during a period Mr Baker admits was a tough one for the school.

“We had been working for five years developing a number of courses, working out the model for doing an online course, and then in 2000 there was a change in the leadership at the school board, and they decided they were going to do things differently.”

Mr Baker was left with just a domain name and a concept, struggling to keep the business alive. Cutting ties with the school board meant that Virtual High School could no longer offer credits to its students, meaning privatization was the obvious step.

“I proceeded down [the privatization] line, and we had an inspection done by the Ministry of Education here in Ontario, and they basically granted the right to act as a private school, and that was our start. That would have been around 2001.”

Changing to a private institution did not require a huge change. The curriculum is the same, and the Ministry of Education sets all the standards. This means that credits offered privately are exactly the same as those gained from a public or Catholic school.

“[The Ministry’s] goal is to inspect us and make sure that we follow all of their procedures for report cards, assessment and evaluation, transcripts, OSRs [Ontario Student Records] – that they are to the level they expect them to be for any school.”

One of the most difficult tasks the school has is establishing prerequisites that need to be achieved by students coming either from other Canadian provinces, or other countries, for the class or classes they have signed up for.

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Virtual High School is a year-round private school inspected by the Ontario Ministry of Education

“Most Canadian education is similar across all provinces, but with 180+ countries in this world now, there’s a lot of documentation in different languages that we have to delve into, to determine if they have completed that prerequisite.”

Wide selection of courses

After its modest beginnings in 1995, Virtual High School today offers over 70 courses, catering for grades 9-12. Compared to the 55-60 courses provided by a standard public school, this is an impressive offering.

“We expect of course English, and Science, and Math – but a lot of people don’t realize that we offer courses like Phys Ed, and Music, and Art, and they find that absolutely incredible that we can offer these types of courses in an online environment.”

All these courses are subject to Ministry of Education inspectors, who regularly check they are being taught properly. The online setup has given the school scope to be incredibly creative with the courses it designs.

“We’re not standing in front of a classroom,” Mr Baker says. “We have to do things a little bit differently, and we have to present that teaching differently. That’s been the fun part – designing how to offer these courses in a way that they haven’t been offered before.”

With little marketing power other than word-of-mouth, what makes the school attractive to prospective students is the promise of being able to complete courses in a way most beneficial to the individual.

“They can start anytime and move through at their own pace. Some students need it to be delivered in a slow manner, so that they can absorb it. Whereas other students, they’re through in half the time that you would normally expect.”

Staff have the chance to present the curriculum in new and exciting ways, with courses designed to be ongoing rather than fixed. They are never seen as completed, and are undergoing development on a daily basis, often based on student feedback.

Winning a big US contract

One of the school’s biggest achievements to date is winning a bid to build elementary school courses, after responding to a request for proposal for the writing and development of 36 courses in grades K-5 for Florida Virtual School (FLVS).

“[The school] invited us to come down to make a presentation,” Mr Baker says, “along with other responders from the US – we were the only Canadian responder. Ultimately, they [awarded] all 36 courses to us.”

Winning this contract meant the school had to employ around 70 new staff to build the courses with FLVS in an 18-month time frame. With no experience of a project this size before, the VHS team rose to the challenge, and the courses have recently been completed.

“From all I can hear from my staff is that the people at Florida Virtual School are very pleased with the product that we produced [together]. It was a great learning experience. We’re a smarter company now as a result of working on that huge contract.”

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Virtual High School (VHS) is offering high-quality Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) credit courses to students all over the world.

Such a big win for a Canadian provider in the US is particularly impressive. Mr Baker puts it down to the positive reputation that education in Canada, and particularly Ontario, has gained over the years.

“I’m sure Florida, when they did look at us, were aware of that [reputation]. We may be standing on the shoulders of others that had come before us and established good credibility in the market, so I think that was certainly one of the key factors.”

Over the years Mr Baker has learned plenty of business lessons, both those specific to dealing with the change in the internet from the mid-90s until today, and those specific to running an educational institute.

“One of the key things that we’ve learned as a business as we’ve grown is, originally it was all with me – but as I added more staff, my role was to divest myself of my responsibilities, and that’s tough to do.”

As the business has grown, more and more of the school’s staff have had to likewise divest their responsibilities, meaning a greater focus on making coaching and delegation key considerations.

Mr Baker remains confident that once he steps away from the business, it will be in a position to run smoothly and keep growing without him. With great staff on board, ready to lead the next period of growth, the future is extremely bright for Virtual High School.

Find out more about Virtual High School by visiting www.virtualhighschool.com.