Listen to the extended interview:
- The best thing Canada can do now to prepare for a future pandemic is to invest in preparedness.
- Canada must build up its life sciences ecosystem to help develop anchor companies and keep them here.
- A network of connected experts needs to be established so that Canada can respond quickly to future crises.
Canada must work on developing a cohesive network that already knows how to work together efficiently in a crisis. This partnership, involving both public and private entities, will benefit further from continued investment in science and technology as well as in the development of life sciences talent in Canada.
Tell us about yourself and AbCellera.
I have been at AbCellera since the beginning, so it has been just over 10 years now. We are an antibody discovery and development engine that strives to bring new and better medicines to patients faster. You might wonder, “Well, what is an antibody?” Antibodies are the fastest-growing class of medicines. They are produced naturally by immune systems to fight diseases and infections. They are also all different, which makes them very precise in their ability to target specific indications for diseases. Some of these molecules, if we are able to find and identify them, can be turned into medicines to help treat and prevent disease.
We founded AbCellera in 2012. Carl Hansen, our CEO, was a professor at the University of British Columbia. We are based in Vancouver. At the time, we were developing different technologies in the lab and we realized that we could use this expertise to create a great tool for the discovery of novel antibodies and help solve an important challenge in the life sciences industry. We originally focused on discovery but quickly realized that for us to be able to bring medicines to patients faster, we had to be good at every step. As such, over the years, we have developed additional capabilities. Now, we are building a clinical manufacturing facility in Vancouver that will help us find those medicines, develop them into drugs, and produce them so that they can reach patients and clinical trials.
How you would describe the impact of biotech on Canada’s future economy and society?
We are very fortunate to be in the biotech and in life sciences sector because we have the opportunity to work on challenging problems. This makes a difference and impacts people’s lives. When you think about what a good economy is, it is about maximizing the welfare of our society, and that has many elements to it. One of them is living healthier lives. Having the ability to not only create but also produce our own medicines is really important for a nation. There are many win-win elements that the life sciences industry can bring to Canada’s future.
How well prepared is Canada to deal with future pandemics? What do we need to focus on to be as prepared as we should be?
I agree that there could be more pandemics. Hopefully, we have learned a lot from the most recent one. The number of contributions that came from Canada that were brought to the world in terms of new therapies is amazing. Many components that are in the vaccines were created from technologies that came from Canada. We had a big impact on generating solutions for this pandemic. It might seem obvious, but the key to being prepared for future pandemics is investing in preparedness.
“The key to being prepared for future pandemics is investing in preparedness.”
When the pandemic happened, we were already in the midst of adapting our platform to be able to respond in such a scenario. This project was in contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US. We were already developing the technology, having drills to test how ready we were, and also working on coordination with all of our collaborators to see if we could be fast enough to respond. So, there is certainly a lot of investment that goes into preparation. As a result, when the real pandemic happened and we received a phone call about the first patient in North America to be diagnosed, we were ready.
Canada could greatly benefit from having a cohesive network that already knows how to work together efficiently. Pandemics require many different parties to come together to find solutions, with connections already established. Having that trust makes everything smoother, especially when there is an emergency. We must work on developing those networks early on.
Science and academic labs will have new technologies that can be really helpful, but the connection to patients is what is really important. Labs need to be able to build networks with clinicians so they can deliver medicines to patients more effectively. There need to be good relationships between industry, government and academia so that it is easier to work together when something happens. I am not certain that this is a single network. I would think about this more as an ecosystem where you can mash up all of these strong connections so we can have multiple paths that are already established to get things moving.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Canada’s life sciences sector?
Canada is strong in innovation. We have great technologies coming out of universities and a lot of fantastic talent as well as a good ecosystem to translate early-stage technologies into commercialization. For early-stage companies, there are many programs that are available to help turn ideas into solutions for the world. But, there are improvements to be made. When early-stage biotech companies become successful, Canada must make sure that they can scale at home as anchor companies are the key to building a strong ecosystem.
There are many stories of successful Canadian companies that get acquired by a foreign company. This means that jobs in Canada disappear and there will be less investment in developing that organization in Canada.
There are also specific challenges for the life sciences sector, such as the availability of lab space. Vancouver, in particular, does not have a lot of space for life sciences companies to do their work. Companies need to be able to focus on building the company rather than trying to find a space to work.
Canada needs proper incentives for biotech companies to keep their IPs in Canada and create jobs in Canada. Some of it is down to policy while some of it is around providing support at the right time when it is needed and continuing to stimulate investment in research and development.
Another thing Canada needs more of so we can develop and produce more advanced medicines is clinical trial infrastructure. This infrastructure will allow the drugs or medicines that are discovered and developed here to be advanced to patients.
What is the quality and availability of life sciences talent in Canada?
The quality is excellent and outstanding. When you look at the success of AbCellera, it is all down to the people. The people that make the company successful. Canada has world-class institutions and great training programs. This has been instrumental in AbCellera’s growth.
“To keep high-quality life sciences talent here, Canada needs to create opportunities for them.”
To keep high-quality life sciences talent here, Canada needs to create opportunities for them. If you look not too far back, about 10 to 20 years ago, there were not many options for graduates in the life sciences to build a career here. As a result, many left the country and have built great careers in other companies and have developed the specialized skills and expertise needed to develop new medicines.
However, if we have those kinds of opportunities in Canada now, many of them will want to come back. They are just waiting to see those opportunities in Canada. The talent is excellent and we have a lot of creativity, curiosity and innovation here in Canada. We just need the right opportunities to unleash that potential.
“There needs to be more collaboration between industry and universities to figure out how to craft the right skilling programs for talent.”
As the economy and technologies are evolving, talent will need to adapt. It comes down to collaboration. There needs to be more collaboration between industry and universities to figure out how to craft the right skilling programs for talent so that the trainees have the right expertise and skill set when they graduate. The needs of today are not going to be the needs of tomorrow. We need to maintain a dialogue and open communication as to what may be needed so we can be well prepared.
How would you describe the state of life science and biotech entrepreneurship in Canada?
Life science entrepreneurship is vibrant and it has momentum. There is an optimistic outlook for this sector’s future and there is a great opportunity ahead of us if we can capitalize on this momentum. Canada can become a biotech hub.
But, there are challenges. Ten years ago, when we were talking about building this company, some people told us that we could not build a company like this in Canada. They said, “It has never been done before; we do not have the right talent; there is not enough capital. You should go to the US. You cannot build that here.”
However, we saw something different because we were at UBC and we saw all the innovation and talent there. These are the key ingredients to building successful companies. There was another set of people who looked at our business plan and said, “You know, you are being very conservative and Canadian here. You are not fully capturing the opportunity that you have ahead of you and you have to aim higher.”
“Canada has a lot of the fundamental ingredients for entrepreneurs to build successful companies.”
We followed the advice from that second group of people and we are glad we did. Canada has a lot of the fundamental ingredients for entrepreneurs to build successful companies. It really takes a community. We received a lot of support along the way from the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program. We have a great relationship with UBC, the Western Economic Diversification Fund, Genome BC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Strategic Innovation Fund and Export Development Canada. We also had mentors along the way.
The fundamentals are here but we did not have many examples of companies that had done this before. We were inspired by Stem Cell Technologies, which is the largest biotech company in Canada. Once you prove you can do it, you can inspire others to follow in your footsteps and do the same.
What advice do you have for young Canadian researchers and founders?
We were really fortunate to have great mentors along the way as well as people who had built companies before. There is a real strength and power in building those networks so you can better develop talent and help entrepreneurs take their ideas to the next level.
Try to make connections with mentors as much as possible and then soak up all the information that you can. However, remember that what works for a certain company may not necessarily work for your company. It is important to think about what you are building and what your vision is. Think independently about what it will take for you to succeed.
What needs to be done – and by who – to support the life sciences sector?
I have the same call to action for different groups – government, industry, academia, investors, students and youth. We need to work together. Building connections across those different groups is really important. To build an economy that is based on innovation and to build that ecosystem, everyone has to play a part.
“To build an economy that is based on innovation and to build that ecosystem, everyone has to play a part.”
We need to create opportunities and engage in dialogue for the right actions to happen. We must all agree on the next steps. It is not just about talking, we need to figure out what we can do next, and we cannot do that with only a single group.
Often, unless we get touched by someone who is sick or unless we realize we need therapy for something, science and technology all seem a bit nebulous to us. It is only when it impacts our daily lives that we realize it is critical for society to invest in this.
As such, we need to continue to make investments in science and technology. Then, we must think about how we can bring next-generation therapies to patients more efficiently. There is a lot of innovation happening in Canada, but we must make sure that Canadians can benefit from these investments and that when new and better therapies become available, they are able to access them early.