Isa and Amina Odidi: Unstoppable Dynamos of Pharmaceutical Innovations

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“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
(Robert Frost, 1874–1963)

If there’s any secret that has propelled Prof. Isa and Dr Amina Odidi to become the most productive “power couple” of the pharmaceutical world, it is their passion and courage to be different. It was recently in the news that their company, Intellipharmaceutics International Inc. (mark that name, please) became the first African-owned pharmaceutical company to have a plant in China. Many consider this an extraordinary feat – and indeed it is, considering the massive size of the plant and the stringent conditions required to own such in China’s restrictive environment. Yet, to the Odidis, this is simply another milestone – among a multitude of others – that they have attained in the fulfilment of their mission in the fields of pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical technology: Making a difference.

For nearly 30 years, the Odidis have invested the bulk of their time, acumens and resources in the research, development, manufacture and marketing of difficult-to-make drugs and drug delivery systems, as well as turning generics into supergenerics. Their specialty comprises new and generic controlled-release and targeted-release dosage drugs. They also advance the product development programmes for drugs taken multiple times a day by inventing once-a-day products, thus making it easier for patients to comply with their prescriptions.

Dr Amina describes the dynamism of the couple’s synergy thus: “We complement each other. He is into equipment, I am into biopharmacy…We draw support from each other. We work … plan … fix … he is the external face. And so I stay behind and manage the internal operations and take care of the children.”

Prof. Isa and Dr Amina Odidi
Prof. Isa and Dr Amina Odidi

Life-changing impacts

To understand the tremendous impacts that the Odidis are making in the pharmaceutical industry with their ground-breaking works, it is important to know that the delivery system of any drug plays a critical role in controlling its pharmacological effect and pharmacokinetic profile. What these two world-acclaimed scientists and business moguls are doing therefore is to develop such optimal delivery systems that ensure that each drug is “intelligently coded” (remember Intellipharmaceutics?), so it can successfully reach the necessary site of action for the correct time and duration, and with maximum effect.

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One need not think too far, as to why the Odidis chose this “less-travelled” path of the world of controlled-release formulations. When they began to do serious work on drug research and development, they observed that the generics space was crowded by those producing immediate-release drugs. According to Prof. Isa, “That was easy to do. So we decided to find a new niche, where we could be competitive…we decided to go for very difficult to-make-products. And these products have a technological barrier to entry, so there are very few competitors playing in this field. That was the reason we chose the field.”

But it is not only in product development that the Odidis are making a difference. As should be expected, making complex products must require using complex technologies. In this, the two powerhouses of innovation have excelled beyond measure.They have invented, developed and patented a plethora of disruptive multidimensional controlled-release technology platforms that can be applied to the efficient development of a wide range of existing and new pharmaceuticals. Based on these technology platforms, Intellipharmaceutics has developed several drug delivery systems and a pipeline of products (which have received FDA approval) and product candidates in various stages of development in therapeutic areas that include neurology, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal tract, diabetes and pain.

Perhaps the most notable of these technologies developed by the Odidis is the Hypermatrix technology, which is very pivotal in the manufacture of controlled-release drugs. According to Professor Isa, “Hypermatrix is a concept that is based on delivering drugs on hyperdimensionality. Basically, drug delivery systems work around matrixes, which are seen as three-dimensional entities. But with the Hypermatrix technology, we have added a fourth and a fifth dimension – space and time. After all, being in a timed-release business requires being in control of time.”

Working for the common good

The Odidis are also making a difference through the amount of work they put into their goal of bridging the worlds of pharmaceutical design, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. “This kind of business is for a very, very hardworking person,” says, Prof. Isa. “Both of us come from a very strong and hardworking background. We put in a lot of hours in what we do.” According to Dr Amina, “The company has been able to make so much difference because we have a state-of-the-art facility, testing equipment, with personnel and manufacturing equipment. It’s hard to get the equipment; it’s hard to calibrate them and make them work; it’s hard to maintain them. And above all, it’s hard to research and design a product that you want to perform a certain function in the body and you want it to be released in a certain way.”

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Most importantly, the couple are making a difference in their definition of success, which significantly affects the kinds of products and innovations they specialise on. They are particularly concerned about formulating drugs in such a way as to prevent addiction and abuse. Prof. Isa explains that their goal is not just to have a company “contributing to the bottom-line and shareholders” but also making a difference for society. “We focus on developing products that will improve the lifespan of people and make them live healthy and happy lives,” he says. His wife concurs: “That’s what gives me the satisfaction. Making a difference, not just growing the company, but making these products available to the populace, to the market”.

Background to greatness

Both Prof. Isa and Dr Amina obtained a B.Sc. in Pharmacy from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. It was in the course of their programme between 1976 and 1979 that they met and later married. In 1982, the couple were sponsored by the Kano State government to attend Kings College, University of London to study for a Master of Science degree. Prof. Odidi graduated in 1984 with distinction in M.Sc. Pharmaceutical Technology and was awarded the Abbott Laboratories Prize for best student. Dr Amina also graduated in the same year and obtained an M.Sc., degree in Biopharmacy.

In 1986, Prof. Isa was awarded the commonwealth scholarship to study for a Ph.D. degree and proceeded to the School of Pharmacy, University of London. That same year, Dr Amina was also sponsored by the Kano State government to undertake a Ph.D. degree in the same institution. Both of them graduated in 1990 with a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutics.

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Prof. Isa further obtained an MBA from the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, Canada in 2007, before subsequently obtaining the Executive Education in Innovation for Economic Development (IFED) certificate at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in 2013. He was also awarded a Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) degree Honoris Causa from the University of Benin, in the same year.

The Odidis’ phenomenal rise fully began with an invitation to Canada for a two-year contract to help the country’s pharmaceutical firm, Biovail Corporation, set up its R&D department, in July 1995. That arrangement turned out to be such a resounding success and Biovail became so popular that the couple’s stay was extended for more years.” Within the period however, the smart-thinking Odidis had decided that while the husband worked for Biovail, the wife should start up their company, Intellipharmaceutics. Dr Amina’s outputs and managerial efforts were so excellent and the company did so well, that her husband had to eventually quit Biovail in 1999, so they could concentrate on building their company together. That decision has continued to give the world a floodgate of unprecedented pharmaceutical innovations.

Awards and recognitions

The Odidis’ company, Intellipharmaceutics, is publicly traded on two of the best international stock exchanges i.e., NASDAQ in the United States of America and TSX in Canada. History was made on 22 October 2010, when the couple were asked to ring the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange in New York on the first anniversary of their company going public. They were the first Africans to ever do so.

The couple have also been honoured with several prestigious awards, including the Harry Jerome Award for Technology and Innovation; the University of Toronto Black Alumni Association Award for Professional Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; the Planet Africa Award for Science and Technology (2010); the Scientific/Medical Achievement Award for excellence in pharmaceutical research and technology and innovative research (ANPA, 2001); and the Nigerian Canadian of the Year Award (2007). They have also been featured on global media outlets such as the CNN, VOA, BBC, the World Wide Web, as well as several Nigerian media houses.

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