Carl Hansen
Credit: Peter Holst

With Hansen at the helm, the company rapidly developed a lifesaving antibody therapy for COVID-19

They may not know it, but thousands of people who escaped death from COVID-19 owe a debt of gratitude to Carl Hansen and AbCellera Biologics. “Last year, we had the opportunity to show the world the power of the technology that we had been working on,” director and CEO Hansen says of his Vancouver-based company, which specializes in discovering antibodies for drug therapies.

AbCellera deployed that technology with blazing speed. In March 2020, it obtained the first blood sample from a U.S. patient who had recovered from the novel coronavirus, Hansen says. Within six weeks, AbCellera had screened all of the cells to analyze hundreds of antibodies, choosing one that partner Eli Lilly & Co. turned into the first monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID to reach clinical trials. Pharmaceuticals titan Lilly won regulatory approval last fall to offer that new drug to U.S. patients as an emergency treatment.

“From obtaining the sample to starting clinical testing, that whole path was achieved in about 90 days,” says Hansen, noting that it would normally take well over two years. So far, the drug has helped more than 600,000 patients and saved tens of thousands of lives, he adds. “That was a proof point for the technology, the team and also for the business model.”

Hansen grew up in Edmonton, where he and his identical twin brother were the eldest of four children. His mother and father, a schoolteacher and a lawyer and farmer, respectively, shared an enthusiasm for science and technology. Among his formative influences: watching Star Trek or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos over dinner. “That just seemed, as a kid, adventurous and exciting,” Hansen recalls. “And so I think that probably impressed upon me early an interest in science and math and physics.”

After earning a degree in engineering physics and mathematics from UBC in 2000, Hansen attended the California Institute of Technology for a PhD in applied physics and biotechnology. At Caltech, he began working on technology development for biomedical research. “That was this fusion of engineering and computation and modern molecular biology and cell biology,” he says. “So that’s when I shifted gears out of physics and into life science, but always with a lens on technology.”

Hansen became a professor of physics and astronomy at UBC in 2005. There, he started an academic lab focused on building tools to enable bio-logy research. “Much of that was not aimed at commercial products but really fundamental discovery,” Hansen recalls. “Could you better understand cancer? Could you better understand stem cells? Through that process, we built up a suite of technologies, and I built up a really unbelievable team of people who knew how to work at that interface.”

Among them was AbCellera co-founder and COO Véronique Lecault, who began working with Hansen almost 15 years ago, when he was her PhD mentor and adviser at UBC . “He’s such a great entrepreneur because he has the ability to connect very complex ideas across multiple disciplines,” Lecault says, “and find where new value can be created by having people collaborating and looking at those ideas from multiple angles.”

Lecault also describes Hansen as an empathetic leader who brings out the best in people. “He’s so good at articulating the vision and also the path to get there. We have no other choice but to want to follow along because he’s such an inspiring individual.”

When AbCellera launched at UBC in 2012, Hansen and his small team were technologists, not drug developers, he stresses. Searching natural immune systems looked like the area where their work could have the biggest impact. “We thought this was the killer application for the types of technology we were building,” Hansen says.

Then the team looked at the existing industry platform and saw how dated it was. As a drug type, Hansen observes, therapeutic antibodies is only about 30 years old. Although companies had solved some of the easy problems, everything was based on frameworks that predated artificial intelligence, data science and modern microbiology. “That seemed like a fundamental opportunity to refresh the industry,” Hansen explains. “We ultimately crafted the business model so that it would match that emphasis on technology.”

That meant skipping the slow, expensive route of developing their own drugs. Only about one in 20 drugs gets approved, and the process typically takes a decade and costs $1 billion, mostly thanks to clinical trials.

“We work upstream of that,” Hansen says. “Our company is set up so that we can engage with a partner, which could be a large pharma or biotech company, and they have an idea, they have an insight from biology, they’ve got an innovation that defines what a therapeutic would look like. Then we take that idea and we apply our technology to help get to the actual drug, the composition of matter, faster and more efficiently.”

AbCellera’s partners pay it a little up front, but if a drug gets approved, it shares in the revenue. Rather than bet on one treatment, the company is building a portfolio of hundreds of stakes “so that we can get a diversified share of the next generation of antibody therapeutics that have come from the platform,” Hansen notes.

“He’s got that win-win mentality all the time,” Lecault says. “He does not view the world as a zero-sum game, and the way he approaches problems is always from the perspective of, How can we bring the most value to the world?”

AbCellera, which funded itself for several years mostly through payments from research discovery partnerships, didn’t take its first venture capital financing until 2018. Early last year, it followed that $10-million raise by closing $105 million in private funding.

To help AbCellera scale, Hansen wanted to take the company public. He originally thought that would happen in 2022 or 2023, giving it time to validate its platform and get antibody therapies into the clinic. “With the pandemic, it just happened that all those things occurred in rapid fire right after the financing.”

So AbCellera debuted on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange last December, raising some US$550 million in the largest-ever initial public offering by a Canadian biotech firm. “The combination of timing and market and momentum, we decided to pull the trigger,” Hansen says of the IPO, which made him a billionaire.

In the medium term, AbCellera plans to complete the project it started in 2012, he explains. That includes growing its workforce of about 330 and building new local facilities, among them a manufacturing site—the first of its kind in Canada—that lets it produce therapeutic antibodies for clinical trials. “All of that’s happening here in Vancouver,” Hansen says. “At the end of that, we will have assembled the world’s most versatile, fastest and most powerful engine for identifying new drugs of this particular class.”

10 Questions With Carl Hansen

What was your first summer job?

The summer job that stands out was in my first year of university. I was a tree planter for three months, living in a tent in northern B.C. Pretty much everything after that was easy

Is an entrepreneur born or made? 

It’s absolutely a combination. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. There are some people who have a natural temperament and talents that make them particularly well suited for this. They’re creative; they can work hard; they have lots of energy; they communicate well. Sometimes they’re a little bit of a rebel or maverick or contrarian. I think all that helps in entrepreneurship.

But no one is born an entrepreneur. I think they’re skills that you pick up over time, and they’re skills that you need to develop not just to start. They’re skills that you need to continue to develop as the reality of your particular company changes. So it’s not so much that entrepreneurs are made but they’re constantly in the making.

What is your definition of success?

Success is really not a destination. If you’re an entrepreneur, fundamentally you’re trying to create something that is unique and valuable, and something that will ultimately make the world a better place in some way.

Success is the act of productive creation. So it is when you are at the very limit of what you’re able to do. You’re forced to get better and better, but you’re still feeling that there’s progress. So that you can go home at the end of the day and feel like you left everything on the court and you did your very best, and the work contributed to something that is valuable and important.

For me, it’s about feeling that I am personally having the opportunity to best develop and use my skills to help to build something that is the most valuable thing I can think to build, not just as a company but for society. And also to feel like I’m creating the opportunity for others to feel like that as well. And that’s the sense of community.

What other career might you have had?

I had another career. I was a professor for almost a decade—so, a teacher. I left that not as a change of direction but as a way to better express what I wanted to do in science and technology.

Outside of science and technology, perhaps it’s a romantic idea and it’s harder to do than it sound, but I would love to be a writer. Of course I don’t have time for that, but that’s maybe another way that someone can express creativity and get something out there in the world that lasts.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

I spent about seven years studying ballet as a kid, in a way that was highly encouraged—almost enforced—by my parents. At the time, I think, my parents thought it was a way to develop athleticism and coordination. And when you’re really little, you buy that. When you become a teenage boy, you’re not so sure. Eventually I got out of it, but I still have a lot of respect for that, if no particular talent or expertise.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Perspective.

What businessperson do you most admire?

The one that pops to mind is Peter Thiel, who is a member of our board. For me, he embodies some of the things that are really important in business: independent thinking, the courage to stand apart from the crowd and an almost religious-like faith in the power of technology to push progress toward something that is better in the future. Those are all things that I believe in and I think AbCellera stands for.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

I exercise almost every day. That’s a longstanding habit, and it’s a way to keep your energy up and not get depleted over time, and also to blow off some stress. Normally that’s running or cycling; I’ll often be listening to a podcast or something while I’m doing that. And then at night, I read voraciously on pretty much everything except for science and technology.

How would you describe your leadership style?

The way I’ll answer that is, what do I think is a valuable style or characteristic for a leader, and what do I aspire to get at? One is, I think a leader needs to see the big picture. That’s critical to set vision, and that requires a certain amount of abstract thought. I think I do that well.

A leader has to be a terrific judge of people’s potential and character, because recruiting people and putting them in the right places is probably the most valuable thing in management.

And lastly, a leader needs to be a great communicator. And while I don’t know if I’m a great communicator, I do spend a lot of time working on that, on trying to synthesize complex ideas so that everyone can be aligned on what we’re trying to accomplish.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.

I have forgotten on at least two or three occasions to pack running shoes. And when that happens, as soon as the plane lands, I’m searching on my phone and going out to the running store to buy a pair of shoes so I can get a little exercise before the day starts.