Canada has a strong track record of medical innovation: insulin, stem-cell therapies and HIV drug cocktails all have their origins in this country. However, life-saving innovation has been limited in recent years with a lack of funding coming from within our borders.
“We haven’t seen the growth of the really global, at-scale companies for this industry,” says Carl Hansen, chief executive officer of AbCellera Biologics Inc. “I think it’s conspicuous that if you look across the G7, we’re the only country without a fully integrated global biopharmaceutical company.”
Dr. Hansen, selected as Canada’s EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® in November, is on a mission to change that with his Vancouver-based technology company.
“It’s easy for innovation to get curbed in today’s complex regulatory landscape coupled with increasing research and developments costs,” says Paula Smith, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Canada program director.
“Entrepreneurs in this year’s program are doing things differently, to modernize and transform industries. Utilizing a proprietary technology platform, AbCellera is doing just that — driving greater efficiencies and supporting people’s health and wellness along the way.”
Founded in 2012, based on work in Dr. Hansen’s University of British Columbia (UBC) lab, AbCellera has spent the past decade pioneering some of the most significant advances in antibody therapies since the invention of antibody treatments in the 1970s.
The past 18 months have been a whirlwind for the company as its COVID-19 antibody therapy, bamlanivimab, was authorized in Canada and the U.S. last fall for emergency use. It has so far been administered more than 700,000 times, helping to save thousands of lives.
“AbCellera’s success shows that innovation can be a major driver for our economy while also putting Canada on the global map, says Jad Shimaly, EY Canada chair and chief executive officer. “Carl has identified gaps and connected the dots to deliver bold and unconventional solutions that reimagine the very structure of the pharmaceutical industry. Supporting and celebrating entrepreneurs like this is key to keeping headquarters on Canadian soil and building global competitiveness.”
AbCellera went public in December 2020, raising more than US$550-million, a record for a Canadian biotech company. The success of bamlanivimab served as a proof point for AbCellera’s technology, which was built over decade of hard work.
After graduating in 2000 from UBC, where he studied engineering, physics and math, Dr. Hansen went to study at the California Institute of Technology (Caltec). There, he says, “I was consciously trying to find a way to connect with people that were working on cells, DNA and other things relevant to biology.”
He graduated from Caltec in 2004 with a PhD in applied physics and biotechnology and spent a year working in a post-doc with Leroy Hood – a legend in the biotech field. He joined UBC as a professor a year later, eventually founding his own research lab.
Carl later started AbCellera to begin commercializing the technology he was developing in the lab to find rare antibodies that could be developed into drugs. In the case of COVID-19, the technology used blood samples of patients infected with the virus to quickly identify the most effective antibodies being produced to fight it.
The technology speeds up the process of identifying potential antibody treatments from years to months.
“This is one of the most important fields in biotech,” Dr. Hansen says, “but it was still using technologies from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The companies that developed those technologies made their breakthroughs, but then started to focus on other parts of the business. They accumulated a technical debt over the decades.”
AbCellera had its technology in working order by 2016 and two years later raised its first venture-capital round for US$10-million. The company grew from six employees to 50 and soon nabbed a US$30-million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a platform for more rapid pandemic responses, which laid the foundation for the COVID-19 work that would soon launch the company to new heights.
“It was in 2019 that we realized the business model is working, the technology is at the forefront, and it’s time to get more aggressive on the scale-up,” Dr. Hansen says. “We’re looking to build a business that can be a giant global company and an anchor in Canada.”
AbCellera soon landed another US$105-million in Series B financing. Then, in early 2020, COVID-19 hit.
Even before the pandemic’s global trajectory was clear, Dr. Hansen and his team got to work on it. They secured a blood sample from a recovered patient in late February and struck a deal with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. to bring it to market. Within three months – a world record, Hansen says – the product was in clinical testing and soon received emergency use authorization.
“Today, more than 700,000 patients have been treated,” he says. “That should equal roughly 35,000 saved hospitalizations and about 14,000 lives.”
Today, as the world continues to face ever-evolving COVID variants – not to mention the threat of future pandemics and illnesses – it will be more important than ever to produce new treatments as rapidly as possible. AbCellera’s technology helped compress the years-long route to bring a new drug to market in nine months.
That comes amid what Dr. Hansen calls a “gold rush” in medical science and technology development, spurred in part by COVID-19. He believes the next few decades will see enormous advancement in disease treatment and prevention and AbCellera, which has since grown to more than 350 employees, will play a major role.
“Our mission is to help the entire industry develop antibody therapies faster and better,” Dr. Hansen says. “This is going to be an enormous area to be part of; something that will make all our lives better and healthier and has the potential to be a tremendous economic driver for Canada. And our country has the raw material, in terms of talent and science and history, to be a huge part of that.”
Up next, Dr. Hansen will represent Canada on the global stage to compete with other national winners for the title of EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year™ in June 2022.
At the annual celebration last month, EY Canada was honoured to recognize the following nine other entrepreneurs as EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2021 National Award Winners for their unstoppable achievements that demonstrate bold vision, transformative leadership and sustainable solutions:
- Geoffrey T. Martin, CCL Industries Inc. (CCL.B-T)
- Judi Hess, Copperleaf Technologies Inc. (CPLF-T)
- Louis Têtu, Coveo Solutions Inc. (CVO-T)
- Rizwan Somji, Cymax Group Technologies Inc.
- Clay Purdy, Fluid Energy Group Ltd.
- Michael Serbinis, League Inc.
- Madeleine Paquin, Logistec Corp. (LGT-T)
- Bert Mucci, Mucci Farms Ltd.
- John Williams, Nutra Holdings Inc.
Programs like this, in addition to EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ and the EY Entrepreneurs Access Network, are helping to build a global community that connects the dots between ambitious entrepreneurs and business leaders from around the world to inspire collaboration, spark innovation and redefine the meaning of success.
“Whether in pharmaceuticals, energy, manufacturing or software, they have one thing in common,” adds Mr. Shimaly. “They’re fueling our economy, and putting people first to deliver sustainable, equitable solutions for stakeholders. Canada’s future is bright in the hands of entrepreneurs like this.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Ernst & Young. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.