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Rethinking Biotech: How big, long-term bets are paying off

By RBC Disruptors

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Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi, it’s John here. I’ve been studying and writing about Canadian business for a few decades now, and if there are half a dozen expressions that would capture that span of time, I got to think hollowing out would be one of them. Sure. We’ve seen the rise of some great Canadian companies. I’m thinking of Lululemon, Shopify, Cirque du Soleil. Over the decades. But we’ve also seen some other great names, Alcan and Nortel slide away because they didn’t have global scale. We’ve seen this in fairly blunt terms in the pandemic, too. When you think of the shortages of the last year, whether it’s PPE or foodstuffs or even toilet paper, it was often a function of global supply chains built for scale, built for efficiency, but not built for the kind of resilience that we need in more disruptive times like we’ve seen in a pandemic. We don’t have enough global champions rooted here in Canada. And as we move past this pandemic, we’re going to need to rethink our approaches to what used to be called industrial strategy for a post-industrial age when we’re going to need a lot more Canadian champions in a lot more of these emerging sectors that are going to shape our lives in the decades to come.

This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast, I’m your host, John Stackhouse. For all our supply chain challenges, one of the sectors set to emerge as a post pandemic winner is Canada’s talent rich biotech industry. Canada has had a world leading reputation in biotech for almost a century. It goes back to that famous discovery that we all studied in school of insulin at the University of Toronto lab in nineteen twenty two. And just last year, a Vancouver startup AbCellera Biologics developed what is now the leading antibody treatment for covid-19. COVID crystallized the vital importance of Canadian biotech, an industry that has the potential to develop the tools, treatments and vaccines to make the next time more manageable and less deadly. By early twenty twenty one, Canada’s 10 largest biotech companies and of Celera is tops among them, had a combined market cap approaching 30 billion dollars. The origin of AbCellera, just like Banting and Best’s treatment for diabetes, can be traced to a university lab. In AbCellera’s case, at the University of British Columbia. Back then, in twenty twelve, there were only six employees, one of whom is my guest today – AbCellera’s founder and CEO Dr. Carl Hansen. Carl, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 2 [00:02:57] Thanks, John. Good to be here.

Speaker 1 [00:02:59] Carl, you’ve been researching and working in the biotech sector for almost two decades, but I wonder if you could step back and describe with that benefit of hindsight, the state of the industry right now.

Speaker 2 [00:03:11] It’s something I think about a lot, in fact. And if you’re outside of this space, you may not appreciate what a tremendous trajectory the industry is on right now. You know, one of the things that comes to mind is I started in this field originally in engineering and then as a grad student, Caltech, and it was my second year at Caltech that to big fanfare, they announced the first draft of the human genome. So that was in two thousand, about 20 years ago. That’s a blink of the eye in the course of technology development. And since that time project that took about three billion dollars in 10 years to do, technology has moved so that we could do that hundreds of times in a week in a single lab. So the underlying foundational technologies for searching, for understanding biological systems have only just come of age. And what we’re seeing is a watershed moment across the entire industry. You’re seeing that in a big influx of capital and innovation that is now finally reaching patients with new therapies. I believe that we are only at the very beginning of this. You ask yourself, how much do we understand about biological systems? It is very, very little. And I really think over the next 30, 40 years, you’re going to see tremendous advances in our ability to understand and ultimately to treat patients.

Speaker 1 [00:04:27] It’s remarkable the way you frame it, that it took us the span of human history until 2002 to map the human genome. And then in just 20 years, we figured out how to do that in almost the snap of a finger. And what are we going to be able to do in the next 20 years?

Speaker 2 [00:04:44] Absolutely. If you made the analogy to the semiconductor industry, this would be like the nineteen fifties. Like we have the first transistors and people are getting excited about removing vacuum tubes. No one is yet understanding that we’re going to have supercomputers in our pockets. And biotechnology I think is on that trajectory. I’m not aware of any field or any discipline where the rate of data acquisition has gone up nearly as quickly as it has in biotechnology over the last 10 years, merely a factor of a million in the course of a decade, which is unprecedented.

Speaker 1 [00:05:14] What if the last 16 months taught you many things?

Speaker 2 [00:05:17] I mean, the last 16 months, obviously, the whole world got taught a few lessons about the importance of having a robust sector and what investments in technology can do when things hang in the balance for us. We had spent the last nearly decade in developing technologies to better search and analyze and explore natural immune systems to find antibodies, which are these naturally occurring molecules that our immune systems make, and then use those either to treat or prevent disease. So we’ve been doing that with a heavy emphasis on technology, trying to solve the hardest problems in drug development. And during the pandemic, we had the opportunity to step into the breach and apply that technology to in record time and find a therapeutic antibody to help treat patients. For me, what that really underscored was that what we had been pursuing for 10 years, this concept of heavy investments in technology, this concept of collaboration with other groups, was the winning formula in what was probably the most competitive antibody discovery effort that’s ever happened and an opportunity to prove the technology, to prove the team and really make it Celera, a household name across biotech. I mean,

Speaker 1 [00:06:25] it’s remarkable what you but so many other biotech companies have done in these these 16 months, and we’re still in the midst of it. What surprised you most about your own abilities to innovate over those? Over those?

Speaker 2 [00:06:38] Months, I’m not sure that we were surprised, I mean, we had been working on this problem for a long time, in fact, two years before the pandemic occurred, we had even had a program that was funded with an agency in the US, the Department of Defense, that was specifically trying to solve this problem of rapid pandemic response. So we had done the work. We knew we were ready. We believe that we would be able to come up with solutions faster than anyone else in the world. Maybe what surprised me was the massive impact that that could have in such a short time. It normally takes you 10 years. We work in an industry where it takes a decade to go from an idea through to an approved drug. In the course of the pandemic, we were able to solve the front end of that very quickly and then collaborate with Eli Lilly in the United States and also collaborate with government agencies, including the NIH and, of course, working closely with the regulatory agencies. And we’re able to shrink that timeline. Usually a decade before an approval, down to less than a year before this antibody had been through clinical trials, had been granted emergency use authorization, and as of today has been used in nearly half a million people in the US alone. We believe it saved tens of thousands of lives and tens of thousands of operations. So as a company, when you’re pursuing that mission all the time of finding drugs for patients and you expect it to be out in the future, to have that that whole experience compressed into 12 months is a tremendously satisfying and rewarding experience and one that really brought the team together and I think made everyone really, truly believe in what we’re doing in the long run, which is trying to do this again for other therapies.

Speaker 1 [00:08:17] And maybe I should stop you there and ask you to explain for our listeners who might not be biotech experts, what AbCellera does and how that differentiates from many other products, including vaccines that they may be familiar with.

Speaker 2 [00:08:34] So first off, AbCellera is a technology company. I often make a point of saying that we’re a technology company and not a biotech company. I make that distinction because most biotechnology companies are focused on bringing their own therapeutic products through the clinic and ultimately to approval. We set up a company very differently. We set up the company to assemble the best in class technologies, modern technologies from genomics, from competition, from cell biology, from engineering to make it much easier and faster at the front end of discovery to going from that scientific insight or that concept of what a therapeutic should be to the actual molecule that can be moved forward. Now, the way we do that is that we look through natural antibody responses, either in humans as in the case of covid-19 or in animals, and we sift through millions of different antibodies to find those that have those perfect qualities that make them able to neutralize the virus and also easy to manufacture and distribute as a drug out in the world. So that’s what we’ve been focused on. And the product that we were able to help develop during the pandemic is an antibody therapy that essentially can be given to patients and acts like synthetic immunity to stop the virus in its tracks, to keep people from getting sick, to keep them out of hospital and to keep them from dying.

Speaker 1 [00:09:56] You talked a bit about the pace of innovation through the pandemic, referencing largely US institutions and partners. But I wonder if you can give us a sense of Canada’s preparedness. We’ve seen a lot of restructuring of sectors, including biotech, over the decades, in some ways made us more competitive in other ways, made us perhaps less resilient. What’s your take on Canada’s position in terms of especially the biotech sector and our global positioning right now?

Speaker 2 [00:10:27] I don’t think that anyone would try to make the case that Canada was well-prepared for the covid-19 pandemic. And perhaps that’s not a terrible indictment because that was true broadly across the world. One of the things I would say is that if you look at the solutions that have been brought forward, the vaccine development, the therapeutics, the contact tracing, these have come from countries that have a very well-developed technology and biotechnology sector. And in many cases, those solutions, particularly things like the Moderna vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, you can map their origins back to investments that were made in the US by the government, focused on finding new therapeutic modalities to treat cancer or even to treat vaccines. So Canada, unfortunately, over the past several years, I think I’d characterize as a nascent biotech sector what has happened over the past few months or year, I think has shown everyone the importance, not just for the economy, not just for creating jobs, not just for helping to do your part as a country in innovation, but also for national security and having your own supply chain and your own capabilities take care of your citizens. We could improve substantially some of the policies that. We have to make Canada more competitive for attracting investment for four growing businesses, also to make it more business friendly for sectors, particularly biotech, which are heavily regulated. And in many cases, Canada is actually a harder place to do business than in the US. And so with the stroke of a pen, with some good policy decisions, I think we can make a very big impact that would help to get more investment, bring more people into Canada doing biotech and probably most importantly, to make sure that companies that we have like AbCellera, can scale quickly and are incentivized to make sure that Canada remains their home base.

Speaker 1 [00:12:17] Carl, I want to go back to a point you just made about Canada being a harder country to do business in, one of the challenges for companies like yours is getting on the so-called lists of treatments. Not that that’s easy in the US, but what are some of the obstacles you face in terms of getting that kind of access in your home country versus the country next door?

Speaker 2 [00:12:40] There’s been a lot said about that, and I probably don’t want to go too far into all of the nuances of getting drugs approved and sold in Canada, in large part because that’s normally not an area that our company plays in and not one that we have a lot of attention to until recently. So if AbCellera typically would work on the front end of discovery and then we would work with partners like Eli Lilly to go through clinical development and ultimately through the commercial, one of the things that that I would highlight is that Canada has very little activity in terms of clinical trials. There are some differences between the requirements for starting clinical trials in Canada and the US. And those differences, at least in the covid-19 situation, have made it difficult to launch clinical trials in Canada. So there is, I think, a very strong case to be made to harmonize our way of evaluating drugs and launching clinical development with the US, since they are a much bigger player in this space and the proximity to Canada would make it a natural extension for those efforts. It’s worth highlighting what an opportunity that might be for Canada. So first of all, developing a drug all the way through from an idea to approval is something that requires investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So those investments go to the hospitals, the doctors, the data collection. And by making ourselves an attractive place to do clinical development, we would create a new industry that is new dollars coming into Canada and building up that research capability, which is so critical for the biotech sector. The other thing to point out is that there are diseases out there, unfortunately, for which we don’t have good drugs. And if you’re in Canada, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to access those trials to get the early access to treatments that could really make a difference. To the extent we can make Canada a destination for clinical development, it would unlock value or drive investment to the country. It would bolster the environments and the expertize for clinical development of biotech. And it would be a win for patients who would be able to access those therapies more quickly.

Speaker 1 [00:14:44] I wonder, Carl, if you can shed a bit more light on your own strategic thinking for AbCellera, you’ve made a strategic decision to partner with leading drug makers. You’ve mentioned Eli Lilly and not be the drug maker itself. Maybe shed a bit of light on your thinking there and how you see things going forward.

Speaker 2 [00:15:01] We started the company back in 2012 and started it based on investments in technology development that I had been working on for about a decade at UBC and almost 20 years in my career. When we launched the company, it was really on on two main insights into the industry. And the first was that because the industry had been so focused on developing therapeutics, very little attention had been spent on refreshing and updating and improving the technologies that are the foundation for those early discoveries that lead to therapeutics. And when we really start to dig into that, we realized that most of drug development is still being done on technologies that were invented in the 70s and the 80s. And since that time, the entire world has changed. We have artificial intelligence. We have modern molecular biology, we have genetic engineering, and that is laid the opportunity or created the opportunity to reinvent that process.

Speaker 1 [00:15:58] Can I just stop you there for a second? That’s extraordinary that you’re working on tech platforms essentially from the 1970s, given the billions or over the span of time, trillions of dollars that go into the industry. Why was it so slow to evolve?

Speaker 2 [00:16:13] Of course, why? Questions are always difficult to compete in. The way I believe it has happened is in the early days, there were these technologies that were sufficient to solve the problems of the day and antibodies 30 years ago. This was not even a therapeutic type. And so people were skeptical that it would work. The early pioneers in that space had to solve a lot of problems and they worked with the technologies of the day. Once they did and it worked, they started to build infrastructure. They started to build processes and teams and ways of working that push that technology ever further. And that represented an ingrained way of doing the process and also a big sunk cost. Now, those companies, their business is to create drugs and bring them to the clinic. Their business is not to do technology development. And so at any point in time, if you looked at the current state of the technology, you would say, well, yes, maybe we could do it better, but we don’t have the teams and expertize and it would take a really long time to replace everything that we’ve done. And so there’s never a strong incentive to do it. Whereas a new company, a startup company, always has this advantage. In any industry, you do not have any such cost. You have a white page. And if you’re looking ahead, creating that vision for what a modern version of this would look like, you have the opportunity to build that right at the frontier of what’s possible. So that is the advantage of new companies all the time. It’s probably the reason that you often see small companies in the tax base, in the biotech space that reinvent processes that for many reasons should be done by the big companies. They have the people, they have the expertise, they have the capital. We set out to do that and build the company and the entire business strategy on this philosophy that long term investments in technology will fundamentally move the needle in how we develop drugs. They’ll open up new opportunities. They’ll make it faster, they’ll make it cheaper. And when we decided to do that, we made another decision that was quite orthogonal to what everyone thought was good business practice. We decided not to become a drug company, and instead we were going to build the platform or as we like to call it, the operating system and allow the entire industry to access that through partnerships. So we’ve worked now on well over one hundred programs or therapeutic development programs. We’ve worked with some of the biggest, most enabling companies in the industry right down to small startups. And the way in which we operate is they have a problem. They come to us, we work collaboratively. We bring their problem in-house. We apply our technology and we send them back the data and the sequence or the instructions for making the molecules that can then become drugs. And when those actually become drugs, we participate in the success by having a royalty on the final sales.

Speaker 1 [00:18:58] As you speak that way, Carl, we don’t always hear that kind of entrepreneurial hutzpah from scientists. You did a PhD in applied physics and biotech, as you mentioned from Caltech before, accepting a teaching position at UBC in two thousand and five. I think you’re still an adjunct professor at UBC. And I’m curious how you marry those two skills of science and entrepreneurship and whether they’re complementary or competing.

Speaker 2 [00:19:26] That’s a good question. I’ve been a scientist for many years, but I think I would more characterize what I have done as technology development. So I started my life in physics and engineering, realized after undergrad that I wanted to get myself into biotech and then began working back in two thousand. On developing technologies for biomedical research, one of the things that I learned very early on that path was that it is extremely powerful to have a healthy irreverence or credentialed expertize. So you must be willing to step outside of your comfort zone to attack problems wherever they may take you and be willing to be the novice and understand that you’re going to learn quickly. That’s an idea that I took back to UBC and we had grad students that had trained, let’s say in biology, we’re doing programing. We had programmers that were doing biology experiments. So when it got time to launch the company, the idea that we could then step into something we hadn’t done before, business or business development or H.R. or all these other things, that was not intimidating. If you’ve been a physicist that transitioned into genomics, making the transition into finance or something else, that’s just another thing that you need to learn. So I actually think in many ways that was good training for entrepreneurship. The other thing I’ll say about entrepreneurship is what it really is about is about being able to see the world with fresh eyes and to try to find the opportunities that everyone has missed for some reason. There’s a lot of work at the universities and locally in trying to somehow make a formula for creating companies and even to define what entrepreneurship is. In my view, no such thing exists. It’s really just about independent thinking and then being willing to commit to the path even when it’s hard, because the hard things are the ones that are ultimately going to be of value. That is something that I’ve been trying to communicate back to, would be entrepreneurs at UBC that you can’t create a company by consensus. You’ve got to actually have an idea. It starts with individual thought and then bring the right people around the table to make that a reality.

Speaker 1 [00:21:29] You can’t create a company by consensus. Those are words we can come back to. We’re going to take a quick break. But coming up, more of our conversation with Dr Carl Hansen of AbCellera on the future of biotech in Canada.

You’re listening to Disruptors, an RBC podcast. I’m your host, John Stackhouse. Key to the success of any entrepreneur is a keen sense of creativity. And in case you missed it, Disruptors recently dropped a special two part series on the subject with guests from iconic Canadian brands like Lululemon and Shopify, plus Richard Florida, the urban studies guru behind the book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Welcome back. My guest today is Dr. Carl Hansen, the founder and CEO of AbCellera Biologics. I’m still intrigued with the idea of the new comer advantage and what newer firms can do that incumbents may not be positioned to. And often we see recapitalizations of sectors that that enable that. And in some ways, I wonder if we’re seeing that in biotech, if not a recapitalizations, certainly in a lot of new capital coming in, that should be allowing a lot of amplification as well as disruption. What do you think all that is going to lead to in terms of what the biotech sector can do, especially from the Canadian perspective in the 2020?

Speaker 2 [00:23:04] Well, obviously, the influx of capital, which is happening south of the border and also in Canada, is a huge tailwind for biotech. This is a sector that is very difficult to succeed in, and I mentioned it before, but the typical timeline from initiating a program, having a drug approved is somewhere north of a decade. If you factor in a failure, probably a couple of billion dollars on average per approved drug and certainly hundreds of millions for a program that is successful. So it’s an industry that requires investment. It requires long term investment in patient capital to ultimately create value, which only happens when we finally get therapeutics to patients. So all of that is very positive. Canada in particular, what I think we’re seeing is a renaissance of new companies that have been built in a different way from what we had maybe a decade ago. So a decade ago, we had some high flying companies, many of which were really focused on one or two drugs that they were moving forward. And when that works, it’s of course, it’s wonderful, but it’s always fragile. There can always be something that comes in and replaces it based on what was, I think, a real decline in our sector here in Canada. The new companies that came up really got built at a time when there wasn’t much capital and they found ways to bootstrap up and to take a more diversified and platform approach to building their business. So the new companies that we’re seeing are companies that are really focused on building the capabilities from which you can take multiple shots at doing drug development and then having those capabilities, being able to make deals with large pharma companies, with small pharma companies, to find revenue, to find validation until they get to that critical mass where they can start to develop their own drugs.

Speaker 1 [00:24:48] Curious what advice you might have for other Canadian companies, entrepreneurs especially wanting to get noticed by global investors and attract that kind of especially smart capital to whatever it is they’re doing.

Speaker 2 [00:25:01] It’s probably several things that I could say about that. Maybe the first would be that this is not something that you just flip a switch and you’re connected to these investors and you close these deals. These are relationships that need to be built over time. And so spending time in the big centers, taking the calls, networking, that’s a critical part of it. The other advice that perhaps is targeted really towards Canadians is to be wary of being too conservative in your plans, not bold enough in the vision that you’re you’re projecting. I’ve certainly noticed that if you’re north of the forty-ninth parallel, people are often criticizing you for being unrealistic and what you’re trying to achieve. And the same plan, if you pitch in in San Francisco, people would ask you why you’re wasting their time, because it’s not big enough. So if you are not setting the bar high enough, if you’re not going after that really big market, something that could be a global company, you are not going to attract the interest of the really best investors because they’re not looking for incremental. They’re looking for game changing ideas.

Speaker 1 [00:26:00] That’s great advice. I’ve heard from investors in Silicon Valley that whenever we hear a number from a Canadian entrepreneur, we usually add 20 percent because they’re always low balling it. That’s just the Canadian way. I wonder if you might share some reflections on the state of universities in this country. You’ve spoken very highly about UBC, which you’ve got a strong and long attachment to. And I’m wondering what we need to think about for the decades ahead in terms of the continued advancement of Canadian universities to be at the center of a thriving, globally relevant biotech sector or sectors.

Speaker 2 [00:26:37] I’ve actually thought a lot about that in my last two years as a professor at UBC, I had the unique perspective of being both an educator and an employer that was growing the company and had the opportunity to interview many, many employees. One of the things I would say, first of all, is that I don’t think there’s any requirement to revise the technical curriculum. If anything, we could take material out of the curriculum because most of what people need to know is the basis of science. Then they will learn what they need on the job. If anything, I think we need to better expose students to information about what is happening in the sector to make them first and what are the new technologies and what does it take to succeed in this space. So they get excited about it so they can better understand the relevance of what they’re doing. And perhaps third is spend more. Time emphasizing, if not developing those professional skills that are going to make the difference between being hired or not and that once you’re in an organization, ultimately determine how impactful you’re going to be and how high you can rise up in the organization. And so perhaps it’s not the most conventional view, but I think within the STEM fields, we’re probably have an overemphasis on the technical and not enough of an injection of the big picture and maybe even some of the liberal arts types of courses that help to round out a character and make someone a better a better employee and a better citizen.

Speaker 1 [00:27:59] And one of the common critiques is, you know, also is that we don’t commercialize enough, especially IP, whether it’s coming out of universities or other sources. What should we be thinking about as a country, especially coming out of the pandemic and with all the IP that we’re likely to see in fields like yours to ensure that more of it stays in Canada and becomes a stronger base for economic growth?

Speaker 2 [00:28:22] Well, intellectual property is critical. I think the very best way to get these technologies into the world is through the formation of companies getting more people interested in that space and providing the resources to help launch these companies, that it’s a hard thing to solve, but it’s one that gets better and better as you have local successes, perhaps a very practical thing that I think would make a huge difference, at least at UBC, and I suspect it’s true across the country, is that the technology transfer offices that manage this intellectual property and need to make those decisions on protection early on are woefully underfunded. If you look at the total budgets for discretionary funding, it’s a small fraction of what would be appropriate for a research organization of that size. I’m talking about low single digit percent, if even that high. So because of that, I’m sure we’re losing a lot of value that even when it gets picked up later by a company, perhaps it wasn’t filed as broadly as it could have been. That is something that’s easily corrected and that if we do it, I believe it’s going to keep more value here in Canada, both in terms of the IP and also the companies that are launched on it.

Speaker 1 [00:29:30] Tell us a bit about your own ambition for AbCellera. You started off with just six employees not so long ago and earlier this year it was just over two hundred. I think you’re planning to double that by year’s end. That’s pretty aggressive. You’re building a new campus in Vancouver. I’m wondering what gives you so much confidence about where things are heading to bet on this growth today?

Speaker 2 [00:29:50] I think we’re approaching three hundred employees and we’ll be well north of 450 by the end of the year. And the campus that’s getting built is three hundred and eighty thousand square feet, I believe, ballpark with additional plans to expand into manufacturing facilities. These are absolutely big plans, unprecedented, an unprecedented footprint here in Vancouver and of course, the creation of hundreds of well-paid, highly skilled, cutting edge technology jobs. One of the things that I am most excited about in the company is that emphasis on technology, our long term vision, is to become the undisputed leader in technology for therapeutic antibody development in the world. I actually think we are knocking on the door of that right now if we’re not already there, and to not just maintain, but to extend that advantage for decades to come. If AbCellera is a bold strategy on long term investments, on technology that could help to open up new therapeutic areas, make things run faster, and what you’re going to see from us is R&D. You’re going to see technology and licensing and acquisition and probably most importantly, building out the capacity, the people, the systems, the infrastructure that allow us to have as big an impact as possible on the entire industry. So I see that as a technologically advanced factory, the input of which is the problems of drug discovery and the output is innovation and the intellectual property that can lead to new therapies to treat patients. The biggest ambition is to show the world that when you take a long view on technology and you get the right people in place, you can build an organization that people are proud to be a part of and one that does one that has a real positive impact in the space and in particular in making it easier and faster to get therapies to patients and to do that in a way that reaches more people and is more cost effective. And I do believe that that that starts with getting the people right and the technology and the mission of the company. And I feel like we’re on we’re on a great path.

Speaker 1 [00:31:58] What an incredible vision. Incredible conversation. Carl, thanks so much for being part of Disruptors.

Speaker 2 [00:32:03] Thanks so much, John.

Speaker 1 [00:32:04] My guest today has been Dr. Carl Hansen, the founder and CEO of AbCellera Biologics. I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead as we bring you some of our favourite episodes from the past year and update some of the amazing stories of Canadian resilience. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 3 [00:32:32] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by JAR Audio. For more Disruptors content like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit rbc.com slash disruptors.


As Canada emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks in large part to the lightning-fast development of new vaccines, medical innovation has never been more fascinating—or more critical.

Biotech has quickly become one of the most important emerging sectors in the Canadian economy. Today, Canada’s 10 largest biotech companies have a combined market cap of $28 billion. Topping the list is Vancouver-based AbCellera Biologics, which debuted on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange with a record-breaking IPO late last year—making it Canada’s most valuable biotech company in history.

The company has developed what is now the leading antibody treatment for COVID-19, called bamlanivimab. It’s approved in 15 countries (including the U.S. and Canada), and has been administered to over 400,000 COVID-19 patients.

But AbCellera is more than just that one treatment. The company has formed more than 100 partnerships with 27 different partners to find antibody treatments for a range of ailments.

We spoke with founder and CEO Dr. Carl Hansen on the latest Disruptors podcast. In our exclusive interview, host John Stackhouse and Hansen explore everything from the origins of AbCellera, to how their antibody treatment works, and their big plans for global success.

Here are our three top takeaways from our conversation with Carl Hansen:

1. “We’re only at the beginning of this.”

The pandemic has accelerated the biotech industry as a whole

The biotech industry is experiencing a watershed moment, with a big influx of capital as investors wake up to the sector’s potential.

“If you’re outside of this space, you may not appreciate what a tremendous trajectory the industry is on right now,” Hansen said. He cited the 2003 announcement of the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, which mapped out human DNA to identify disease genes, leading to novel approaches to therapy and more effective medicines.

“Since that time, a project that took about $3 billion and 10 years to do, technology has moved so fast that we could do that hundreds of times in a week in a single lab,” he said.

These bursts of innovation quickly translate into real-world implications: patients are being treated with new and effective therapies.

2. “Biotech is a sector that’s difficult to succeed in.”

It’s an industry that requires large amounts of patient capital

Drug development has come a long way, with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), modern molecular biology and genetic engineering enabling a greater understanding of how to leverage human genetics for personalized medicines. But, as Hansen pointed out, it’s still a very lengthy, costly and complicated process.

“Developing a drug all the way through from an idea to approval is something that requires investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Hansen said. The typical timeline to initiate a program is somewhere north of a decade.

The global biotechnology market size is expected to reach US$2.44 trillion by 2028, according to a new report.

“If you made the analogy to the semiconductor industry, this would be like the 1950s—no one is yet understanding that we’re going to have supercomputers in our pockets—and biotechnology is on that trajectory.”

3. “Our goal is be the undisputed leader in antibody development in the world.”

AbCellera has big ambitions for global success – while remaining in Vancouver

AbCellera’s technology uses AI to identify potential therapeutics in human antibodies. Instead of trying to bring their own therapeutic products to approval, they assemble modern technologies to identify the molecule from our natural antibody response that can be moved forward into a potential drug.

With the success of bamlanivimab, Hansen told us that he wants to maintain and extend the company’s global lead for developing leading antibody technology for decades to come.

“What you’re going to see from us is R&D—you’re going to see technology, licensing and acquisition and probably most importantly, building out the capacity, the people, the systems, the infrastructure that allow us to have as big an impact as possible on the entire industry,” he said.

As a Canadian, it’s important to Hansen to do that important work right here at home.

In April of this year, AbCellera announced plans for a new 380,000 square-foot headquarters in Vancouver. They’ll also double their current headcount by the end of 2021, with a focus on software, engineering, and bioscience talent.

“The biggest ambition is to show the world that when you take a long view on technology and you get the right people in place, you can build an organization that people are proud to be a part of and one that has a real positive impact in the space and in particular in making it easier and faster to get therapies to patients,” said Hansen.

“And I do believe that that that starts with getting the people right and the technology and the mission of the company. And I feel like we’re on we’re on a great path.”

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Sources

Originally published by RBC Thought Leadership (June 22, 2021)  The Vancouver biotech company on a mission to help the world