EOY: The Science of Innovation

Investing in R&D is just one way that 2016 EOY winner Allen Eaves keeps Stemcell Technologies ahead of the curve


BCBusiness + ERNST & YOUNG

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Forced retirement led Eaves to turn a side project into a new business

Investing in R&D is just one way that 2016 EOY winner Allen Eaves keeps Stemcell Technologies ahead of the curve

Most people see retirement as an opportunity to step back from the work life and indulge in some leisure time. But Allen Eaves isn’t most people. When the founder and former director of the BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Laboratory (TFL) took mandatory retirement, he turned a side project into an innovative international biotechnology company. And he’s just getting started.

“We’re going to hit $1 billion in 12 years, the way we’re going,” the ebullient hematologist insists. Eaves, 2016’s overall EOY winner for the Pacific Region, founded Stemcell Technologies Inc. in 1993, initially as a small supplier to research colleagues of a medium necessary for growing stem cells. Since his 2006 retirement, president and CEO Eaves has grown the business at a blistering pace of 20 percent a year on average.

What was once a staff of 10 is now a workforce numbering more than 1,000, with 13 offices across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and distribution in 25 countries. Stemcell’s rapidly expanding product lines offer more than 2,500 tools for life sciences research, from tools for cell-growing media and kits for cell isolation to instruments and reagents for analysis. This year sales are expected to hit $185 million.

Remarkably, while the company has ballooned in size, its pace of innovation hasn’t slowed. That’s no accident. Contrary to the romantic view of the tech entrepreneur as a convention-busting renegade, Eaves’s secret to retaining a foothold on the bleeding edge of his industry comes down to good old-fashioned discipline.

Stemcell rigorously reinvests 15 percent of its revenue in research and development, focusing on projects that respond directly to customers’ needs—which is why nearly all of its sales and marketing staff have science backgrounds, 40 percent of them PhDs.

“We’ve got all these salespeople who work with leaders in the field and they tell us what they want,” Eaves explains. “They have to really understand their customers, which they do. Our tagline is ‘Scientists helping scientists,’ and that’s very genuine,” he adds. “We basically take the ideas from academics and turn them into robust products and sell them back to them at a profit. But in so doing, we’ve saved them time, and we’ve given them the assurance that if they use our products the way we say, they will work.”

To get products to market quickly, Stemcell doesn’t make anything for clinical use, circumventing time-intensive regulatory approvals. However, Eaves hints that this may change when the company aggregates its separate research, sales, manufacturing and distribution centres in Metro Vancouver into a campus-type facility in Burnaby. Currently in the planning stages, the campus will be equipped to make clinical-grade products.

The other key to innovation, according to Eaves? Meetings are frequent—and productive. “There’s that book called Death by Meeting,” Eaves acknowledges. “But how do you make a really good meeting? You have interesting things to talk about and decisions being made. Every meeting we have has an agenda and action items and due dates. The next meeting starts off with a review.”

Perhaps most important to Stemcell’s success has been Eaves’s grip on the reins. He’s steadfastly opposed to diluting his ownership stake or going public—an option he sees as the death knell of local biotechnology outfits. “Vancouver is full of dead and dying biotech companies,” he declares. “Investors want an exit strategy of three to five years, and, you know, it’s too short a time frame. Success [for them] means selling the company to somebody else, ideally an American company, in which case everybody loses their job. I saw that with colleagues getting involved with investors. They kill companies.”

For his part, Eaves isn’t going anywhere. “I’m 77, and I plan on living forever,” he quips with a wry smile. “I have no exit strategy.”

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