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The company garnered lots of attention for a COVID-19 treatment that has been administered to hundreds of thousands of patients and led to a huge IPO. But AbCellera is no one-hit wonder. Hansen has proven its drug discovery process works—fast—and now he wants to build a giant right here in Canada

This story is part of our annual CEO of the Year package. Each year, Report on Business magazine recognizes five business leaders who have made outstanding contributions to Canada.

Albert Law/The Globe and Mail

Here are three facts about Carl Hansen that reveal a lot about the AbCellera Biologics CEO:

1. In high school, the 6-foot-2-inch Hansen and his twin brother played for an Alberta basketball team that lost a tournament to a B.C. squad led by future pro Steve Nash.

2. Hansen named his personal holding company Thermopylae, after the pass where a brave, vastly outnumbered Spartan force waged a losing battle against Persian invaders in 480 BCE.

3. After co-founding AbCellera at the University of British Columbia, where he taught in a cross-disciplinary biomedical research lab, Hansen spent about nine months looking for a CEO until a friend he’d tried to hire told him he should just do the job himself.

So that tells you Hansen is tall, athletic and competitive (he’s even completed an Iron Man). The name of the paper company that holds his US$1 billion in AbCellera stock is an homage to “where a small team had the courage to stand their ground against impossible odds,” he says. “That seems a lot like building a technology company.”

Also, Hansen was not a natural-born CEO: He was a professor and scientific visionary first (his name is on dozens of patents) whose chief executive training was largely “a self-directed learning program” that consisted of reading business and economics books, philosophy texts and biographies, he says. He describes a leadership style you’d expect from a ground-breaking researcher: “I actively seek dissent on everything,” he says. And if you start to operate like “what worked yesterday will work tomorrow—that’s when it all starts to crumble.”

But he’s grown into the job, judging by the effusive praise from those around him. “Carl has the ability to bring the best out of people,” says Véronique Lecault, a former student of his who co-founded AbCellera and is now chief operating officer. “He sees what’s possible if we push the limits, and often he sees it even before the individuals can see it themselves. He will trust his team and believes in them to accomplish big goals.” Chief financial officer Andrew Booth says Hansen has a blend of passion, vision and fearlessness, a deep technical understanding, strategic acumen and a gift for communication. “This will be an enduring biotechnology company here in the city,” Booth says. “His vision and execution have really pulled that all together.”

Hansen is an easy pick as Canada’s most innovative CEO for 2021. AbCellera uses a unique mixture of technologies to rapidly crank out antibody after antibody in partnership with pharmaceutical companies. And it has already had a megahit: Early in the pandemic, it discovered a treatment for COVID-19 patients. The therapy got to market in months and has since been administered to 535,000-plus people, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for AbCellera.

Now, Hansen is poised to do something no CEO has ever done: build, from the ground up, on Canadian soil, one of the world’s largest and most valuable biopharma companies. “In technology there was Nortel, BlackBerry and now Shopify,” says Brian Bloom, CEO of Toronto-based boutique investment bank Bloom Burton & Co., which focuses on health care. “But in biotech, we don’t have one of those behemoth anchors in Canada. AbCellera stands the best chance of becoming it.”

Albert Law/The Globe and Mail

Sure, we’ve had breakthroughs here. Remember insulin? Today, three large companies not based in Canada make lots of money selling it. A key compound used in HIV/AIDS “cocktail” therapies was invented here, but the Quebec company that commercialized it sold it for US$4 billion in 2001. The family behind BioChem has been trying to equal its success ever since. So has the rest of the sector: Until last year, no other Canadian patented drug developer had reached such a lofty valuation.

Then came AbCellera. It went public on Nasdaq in December 2020, raising US$555.5 million at a valuation of US$5.3 billion—both records for Canadian biotech companies. Its board includes renowned Silicon Valley billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel and former RBC Global Asset Management CEO John Montalbano. Much of the IPO hype stemmed from its COVID-19 antibody, bamlanivimab, which was both “a proof point but also a distraction,” says Hansen.

Building on technology first developed at the UBC lab, AbCellera speeds up the process of isolating and identifying antibodies that immune systems create to fight infections, using data science, protein engineering, machine learning, bioinformatics and genomics. A key step involves passing cells from a person or animal that has developed an immune response to a disease through a device with hundreds of thousands of tiny chambers. Using artificial intelligence, it tests antibodies produced by cells in each chamber simultaneously to determine which could become drugs.

In AbCellera’s early days, Hansen had to scrounge funds from friends and family. But in 2018, AbCellera scored US$30 million from the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Re-search Projects Agency to find medical responses for pandemics. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated millions, and AbCellera raised US$10 million in venture capital in 2018. It was in the final stages of raising US$105 million in private financing when COVID-19 hit. It seized the moment.

AbCellera obtained a blood sample from a recovered patient on Feb. 28, 2020; within three days, it had isolated hundreds of antibody candidates. After three weeks, it had narrowed the list to 24 and partnered with Eli Lilly & Co. to take a treatment to market. Bamlanivimab was soon in clinical trials and received emergency-use approval from U.S. and Canadian health authorities that fall. High-margin royalty revenue started pouring in.

The process of getting a drug from petri dish to market often takes more than a decade—”if you’re successful,” says Hansen. (Most aren’t.) “We were able to compress that into a year.”

Bamlanivimab’s success gave AbCellera a flash-in-the-pan look, particularly when second-quarter 2021 revenue dropped by 86% from the preceding three months. The stock tumbled. (AbCellera will get another boost from bamlanivimab—Eli Lilly says the U.S. government has ordered 614,000 more doses, combined with another antibody, though further orders are likely unpredictable.) But Hansen said it also raised the company’s profile, and AbCellera has now partnered with dozens of pharma companies and other organizations on close to 140 antibody development programs. Each comes with research fees, milestone payments and the promise of future royalties. It has also bought other tech companies to beef up its capabilities, invested in drug developers and broken ground on a new headquarters in Vancouver.

So while COVID-19 might have put AbCellera on the map, its prime position as an emerging leader in the fast-growing US$120-billion antibody market should keep it there. “We do not see these [COVID-19 treatments] being where the value of the company lies in the long term,” says Hansen. “The value lies in doing that again and again for diseases that include cancer, obesity and Alzheimer’s. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

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