Leadership 2022: After making some green in the cannabis market, John Coleman is seeing red

Avivo Biomedical's technology may be able to change your blood type.

John Coleman

Avivo Biomedical’s technology may be able to change your blood type

This year, we focus on those who have taken on new roles at the top of an organization recently, and quiz them about the changing landscape of leadership.

It’s not often in a career that a person is able to reach the very top of one of the most influential companies in their industry. It’s even rarer that they’d get to do it twice. John Coleman is currently on the precipice of such an achievement.

Coleman was born and raised in Deep River, Ontario, a town two hours north of Ottawa that was essentially built around Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, a research facility and the workplace of Coleman’s father. “It was this nerdy little science town where one of your parents had a PhD,” he recalls.

Coleman ended up getting his own PhD in chemistry from UBC after originally coming west for a tree-planting gig. He went on to work for a handful of government organizations, including the Centre for Drug Research and Development, before co-founding cannabis testing and research firm Anandia Laboratories with Jonathan Page.

Starting with a skeletal staff working out of a UBC lab, Page and Coleman quickly earned a reputation for being leading experts in cannabis genomics (the study of the plant’s genetic makeup). In 2018, after building the company up to some 90 employees, the pair sold Anandia to Edmonton-based cannabis giant Aurora for $115 million.

Anandia continued to run as a subsidiary under Aurora, and Coleman served as president until just after COVID hit. “COVID was a bit of a perfect storm for the cannabis market in general, and it was just a logical parting of ways—I left very amicably with Aurora,” he says, before admitting that “it was hard to see.”

In the fall of 2020, Coleman met up with UBC professor and long-time acquaintance Steve Withers, who told him about technology from a startup at the university called ABOzymes that’s able to change a person’s blood type. “I was pretty blown away because the dogma is that blood types are absolute—there’s nothing you can do about it,” Coleman remembers. He and his wife decided to invest in the company’s seed round, and Coleman was eventually asked to join the team. He officially started as CEO in January 2022.

When asked what he learned from helping to build Anandia, Coleman doesn’t hesitate to answer: “The single biggest lesson is people.” In particular, he stresses, you have to find people who are not only smart but who also have the ability to “react” together (a shocker from a guy with a PhD in the subject, we know). “With a great team, you can accomplish anything,” says Coleman. “It’s absolutely paramount to make sure you find people with the skills you need them to have, yes, but more important is getting people that can actually fit within the team chemistry and work with each other.”

He hasn’t wasted much time. In September, ABOzymes rebranded to Avivo Biomedical and the company is now looking to raise Series A financing in the range of US$30 million. On the former, Coleman gives a few reasons for the change.

“One was that nobody could pronounce the name properly,” he laughs. The second was a barrier to the company’s plans to develop the technology worldwide: the way the ABO (A-BOW) part is meant to be pronounced sounds similar to an offensive term sometimes used in Australia, according to Cole- man. “So that’s bad. And, from a trademark perspective, ABO is a ubiquitous term. So, it was difficult to protect.”

The company settled on Avivo because “the genesis of the name is ‘from life, for life,’” Coleman explains. “When you think of transplant or transfusion, people donating their life to give to another, I think it’s a nice story. And it’s way easier to say.”

With a relatively small team—Avivo had just hired its 12th employee as of press time— based out of UBC, it’s clear that Coleman is trying to capture lightning in a bottle once again. He’s confident that the fundraising round will go off without a hitch, even at a time when tech investors are as wary as they’ve been in the last decade.

“The money will cover the manufacturing of enzymes, formal pre-clinical studies and then the first clinical study,” he explains. “We had a list of about 20 to 25 groups that had expressed interest in us doing a raise. We expanded that and are going out to 50 different groups. We’re hoping to find a lead investor in the next month or so—get the ball rolling. Ideally, we’d close it in early 2023.”

The makeup of investors, says Coleman, will likely be “partly Asian, partly American and partly European, with a minor Canadian component.” Some of the proceeds will also go toward growing the team, which he expects to see doubled by the end of next year. Depending, of course, on how well they react together.

Q&A with John Coleman

Who are your role models today? Who would you look to for inspiration? 

[AbCellera CEO] Carl Hansen and I used to do a talk with fourth-year chemistry students to explain to them that, yes, there is a future for your degree. People like Carl and [Precision Nanosystems founders] Euan Ramsay and James Taylor. The guys who have a vision and doggedly continue to pursue that vision because they fully believe in it.

What is your leadership style? 

Be as fair and transparent as possible. And I give people rope to experiment and do things and learn.