How Sherif Sheta leads IT to keep Canada on life sciences’ cutting edge

Feb 24, 2022
Healthcare IndustryIT Leadership

Culture is key to IT success, says the CIO of the Toronto-based Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM).

Canada Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine
Credit: CCRM

One of a CIO’s chief concerns is to ensure that IT assets and staff are working effectively together within the context of an organization’s overall business objectives.

However, CIOs can get so wrapped up in the IT part of the job that they can overlook the most important aspect of a business: the people who work there every day, says Sherif Sheta, CIO for the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), a Toronto-based, public-private life sciences organization that develops and commercializes regenerative medicine-based technologies and cell and gene therapies.

[ Lisez la version française: « Comment Sherif Sheta dirige les TI pour maintenir le Canada à la fine pointe des sciences de la vie » ]

Sherif Sheta CCRM“When I fail personally, it’s because I didn’t anticipate the human impact of an initiative,” Sheta says, citing some of the things he’s learned along his 35-year career in IT.

CCRM is funded by the government of Canada, the province of Ontario, and academic and industry partners. A major goal is to make Canada a go-to destination for cell and gene therapy manufacturing.

Sheta plays a crucial part in ensuring progress towards this goal, and he says that understanding an organization’s culture is key to his role as a transformational CIO. He’s the executive that a company calls when IT and business aren’t speaking the same language within a company and need to find a way to engage more effectively, he says. “I come in and change the culture of the IT department,” Sheta says. “I create the alignment between the IT and business. That’s really the transformation.”

The CIO as business executive and change enabler

While many CIOs may see a line between the IT department and those involved in the business side of an operation, Sheta takes a different approach. He doesn’t think of himself as the head of an organization’s IT department, but as “a business executive with IT expertise”. “I am a part of that business,” he says. “I get involved in the discussions with each business unit. I don’t just stay in my IT box.”

This “visible leadership and engagement with employees” is how Sheta drives new IT initiatives through the organization so both employees at large as well as top executives — IT and otherwise — are fully on board and cognizant of how changes will benefit the company.

IT people in general aren’t known for their communication skills, nor for foreseeing the human impact of decisions they make. Both traits can limit their success in achieving their goals to use IT to evolve an organization’s needs and facilitate business growth, Sheta says. “We force change on people all the time and we have to be mindful of how that happens and how that’s received,” he says.

Over the years, Sheta has learned that “when people understand the change, they are more accepting of it,” he says. This is the approach he takes whether he’s working with strategic partners on multi-million-dollar IT projects that will create next-generation medicines to cure cancer or he’s training employees on a new IT system.

So far, this human-centric approach is serving Sheta well at CCRM, which is in the business of creating better health and medical solutions for people by advancing regenerative medicine, he says. Regenerative medicine aims to harness the power of stem cells, biomaterials, and molecules to repair, regenerate, or replace diseased cells, tissues, and organs. The ultimate promise of regenerative medicine is to treat, manage, and even cure the afflictions that are leading causes of death and disease in the world today, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.

Simple tools can help change management

Even as he helps guide his company in the design of state-of-the-art manufacturing centres for next-generation biomedical technologies, Sheta still has to think of the employees working at CCRM every day as they roll with IT changes put in place at the organization.

To better serve them, he’s deployed some simple yet powerful tools to facilitate organizational change management, which is integral “to implement any initiative successfully and reach high levels of adoption,” he says.

One of these tools is aimed at helping employees in different roles throughout the organization digest an IT change that will affect how they do their jobs, Sheta says. “I put together a couple of slides that I call ‘A Day in the Life,’” he says, crediting a former colleague who taught him this trick. “You take a role and say, ‘Here’s what your day looks like today. Here is what it will look like with the new system. And here are the changes that we need to manage, train you on, and create more clarity around’,” Sheta says.

Another tool he has implemented since joining CCRM is an IT self-help section on the staff intranet to help train staffers on new technology and find answers to any questions they might have as they become familiar with new systems. The program provides short video clips segmented by topics so it’s easy for employees to navigate to their topic of interest if they have questions.

“Traditionally, IT leaders provide training using antiquated PDF manuals and recording of long-winded training sessions,” Sheta says. But in reality, it’s “ease of use and intuitive screens” that drive adoption of new technology.

The special challenges of a life-sciences CIO

Due to its position in the life sciences field and the nature of its business, CCRM has multiple global partners and stakeholders as well as logistical and regulatory needs that must be balanced. This, of course, provides unique challenges for its CIO, which Sheta has been navigating since 2016.

One of Sheta’s first tasks at CCRM was to help the organization, in partnership with University Health Network, set up a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Toronto to help cell and gene-therapy developers manufacture cells and viral vectors according to GMP, or good manufacturing practices.

The facility — the Centre for Cell and Vector Production — took three years from planning until its launch in 2019 to help academics and industry clients produce materials for Phase I and II clinical trials. “It’s very expensive to set up a Health Canada-compliant or FDA-compliant facility, or even to set up a lab,” Sheta says. “We reduce their risk of failure and do their work for them.” CCRM also helps startups, and sometimes acts as an incubator, by experimenting with new technologies to see if they are viable before committing significant funding, he says.

Balancing security, connectivity, and compliance

Indeed, setting up the facility took careful thought and planning as to how its IT infrastructure would meet data security, connectivity, and compliance needs, all of which are particularly critical when creating a hub for stem-cell innovation. “We have to think about all of the instruments that scientists use to run experiments and trials,” Sheta tells CIO Canada. “We have to make sure from an IT perspective that these instruments and the data generated from them are protected in terms of cybersecurity.”

Network connectivity and redundancy also were key aspects of the project, because science never sleeps, he says. “The networks need to be up all the time, because sometimes we run experiments 24 hours a day or even over the course of a week,” Sheta says.

The centre is currently operational to manufacture cells and viral vectors for researchers in academia and at start-ups, as well as design a new manufacturing process that can be used in the future.

That project has set the stage for a biomanufacturing campus — this one to see cell and gene therapies through Phase III clinical trials and commercial manufacturing — that CCRM is currently building through a partnership with McMaster Innovation Park in Hamilton, Ontario.

The future facility, called OmniaBio, will let CCRM scale its operations and provide a new centre to support companies from anywhere in the world, focused on moving cell and gene therapies out of the lab and into the commercial medical market. CCRM’s investment in cutting-edge IT technologies to support its manufacturing goals “will be even bigger at the new centre,” Sheta says.

For example, the company will create a cloud-based industrial internet of things (IIoT) network that will connect sensors to take metrics at the facility — such as monitoring temperature of sensitive biological materials — to ensure operations run efficiently, smoothly, and with minimal waste, he says.