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Credit: Courtesy of AbCellera Biologics

AbCellera’s executive leadership team. (From left) Kevin Heyries, head of business development; CEO Carl Hansen; COO Véronique Lecault; Murray McCutcheon, head of corporate development

Besides giving the company room to grow and innovate, the planned campus in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood will help attract talent and spawn new businesses, executives say

Scientifically speaking, AbCellera Biologics is used to breaking new ground. Now it’s doing so literally, too.

The Vancouver-based company got the world’s attention last December with its NASDAQ Stock Exchange debut, the biggest-ever IPO by a Canadian biotechnology business. Yesterday, AbCellera—whose market capitalization sits at US$7 billion or so—began shovelling earth for a planned tech campus near its current Mount Pleasant HQ.

Totalling 380,000 square feet, this new home will consist of two buildings that are scheduled for completion in 2023 and 2024. The campus will bring AbCellera’s multidisciplinary workforce under one roof to integrate its processes and pursue innovative new therapies, explains Murray McCutcheon, head of corporate development.

The company, whose staff range from scientists and engineers to software developers and machine learning specialists, needs room to keep growing. “We’re about 250 employees now, and we expect to be over 400 by the end of the year,” McCutcheon says.

AbCellera, founded by CEO Carl Hansen in 2012, searches, decodes and analyzes natural immune systems to find antibodies that its partners can develop into drugs for disease treatment and prevention. With U.S. pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly & Co., it developed the first monoclonal antibody therapy targeting the novel coronavirus. Authorized in 15 countries, that drug has been used to treat some 400,000 high-risk COVID-19 patient in the U.S.

As it plans for the long haul, AbCellera also needs to build its own laboratories. “It is an incredibly difficult constraint on growth to try to find labs and accommodate that need,” McCutcheon explains. “So our vision here is to consolidate our operations in Mount Pleasant, where the company is already located, and to be able to build that capacity.”

The industrial-zoned neighbourhood is perfect for a company like AbCellera, McCutcheon adds. Staying in Mount Pleasant will also help attract talent, he reckons. “It’s ideal for employees and for the kind of community and live-work balance that we aspire to, and that we think will help Vancouver continue to be such a prime spot for tech workers to come and find meaningful employment.”

AbCellera’s new digs, which it’s developing with local builders Beedie and Dayhu Group, will be located near Canada’s first clinical-grade good manufacturing practice (GMP) antibody-making facility. “We have a very significant commitment from the federal government,” McCutcheon says of that project, which the company says will provide technology and infrastructure to help the country respond to future pandemics. “They see the importance of this from a national standpoint. It’s a corporate imperative for AbCellera, and we are in the final stages that plan.”

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Credit: Courtesy of AbCellera

Architectural renderings of AbCellera’s planned buildings in Mount Pleasant

A hell of a lot of momentum

What do AbCellera’s new global headquarters and its continued expansion mean for the B.C. life sciences sector—and the broad provincial economy?

“We’re part of an ecosystem here,” McCutcheon says. “That ecosystem needs to hit critical mass where there’s a centre of gravity for talent, for investment capital, for ideas and facilities,” he argues. “When an anchor company can take the lead planting its flag in the heart of the city and commit to it, that naturally leads to positive spillovers to other companies that will follow in our wake.”

McCutcheon also thinks the project will give B.C. a much-needed economic boost. “There’s no question that COVID-19 has been ravaging the economy, and we’ve always been front and centre in developing first-in-line therapies that can help patients, and we’re delivering those to hundreds of thousands worldwide,” he says.

“To continue that kind of work in COVID-19 and contribute to the economic recovery of the region, we need some shovel-in-ground-ready projects that can help Vancouver and B.C., ultimately, grow into a future diversified economy that we need to be a world player in this area.”

What could we be doing to help create more successes like AbCellera?

“B.C. in general, and Vancouver in particular, have been by far the bright spots for technology innovation in the country,” Hansen replies. “There’s a tremendous upswell of new companies that are doing innovative things. That’s also reflective of the tech sector as a whole.”

Hansen points to the fact that over the past six months, his city has seen six companies grow in value to at least $1 billion. “So we have a hell of a lot of momentum here in Vancouver to lift up the knowledge-based economy.”

When it comes to helping more companies scale up, Hansen thinks business-friendly tax and other government policies that attract investment and executive talent can move the needle. On the tax front, he repeats his call for a patent box, common in the European Union, which sees revenue from intellectual property taxed at a lower rate. In Canada, only Quebec and Saskatchewan use such a model.

“I hope that’s getting traction,” Hansen says, calling it a “slam dunk” for Canada.

“We happen to find ourselves with a tremendous base of science talent, a well-educated workforce, a wonderful place to live,” he adds. “It’s a shame not to really maximize the impact of that, and making policies that make us a competitive place to do business is a value-creating thing for the country. We think that’s one of the really big ones, and of course that requires some change, but it’s been done in some provinces, and I hope B.C. will follow.”