Rethinking Biotech: How Big, Long-Term Bets Are Paying Off

July 05, 2021 | Jennifer Marron


As Canada emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks in large part to the lightning-fast development of new vaccines, medical innovation has never been more fascinating—or more critical.

healthcare specialist smiling in page

This article originally appeared on the RBC Thought Leadership site.

Biotech has quickly become one of the most important emerging sectors in the Canadian economy. Today, Canada's 10 largest biotech companies have a combined market cap of $28 billion. Topping the list is Vancouver-based AbCellera Biologics, which debuted on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange with a record-breaking IPO late last year—making it Canada's most valuable biotech company in history.

The company has developed what is now the leading antibody treatment for COVID-19, called bamlanivimab. It's approved in 15 countries (including the U.S. and Canada), and has been administered to over 400,000 COVID-19 patients.

But AbCellera is more than just that one treatment. The company has formed more than 100 partnerships with 27 different partners to find antibody treatments for a range of ailments.

We spoke with founder and CEO Dr. Carl Hansen on the latest Disruptors podcast. In our exclusive interview, host John Stackhouse and Hansen explore everything from the origins of AbCellera, to how their antibody treatment works, and their big plans for global success.

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Here are our three top takeaways from our conversation with Carl Hansen:

1. “We're only at the beginning of this."

The pandemic has accelerated the biotech industry as a whole

The biotech industry is experiencing a watershed moment, with a big influx of capital as investors wake up to the sector's potential.

“If you're outside of this space, you may not appreciate what a tremendous trajectory the industry is on right now," Hansen said. He cited the 2003 announcement of the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, which mapped out human DNA to identify disease genes, leading to novel approaches to therapy and more effective medicines.

“Since that time, a project that took about $3 billion and 10 years to do, technology has moved so fast that we could do that hundreds of times in a week in a single lab," he said.

These bursts of innovation quickly translate into real-world implications: patients are being treated with new and effective therapies.

2. “Biotech is a sector that's difficult to succeed in."

It's an industry that requires large amounts of patient capital

Drug development has come a long way, with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), modern molecular biology and genetic engineering enabling a greater understanding of how to leverage human genetics for personalized medicines. But, as Hansen pointed out, it's still a very lengthy, costly and complicated process.

“Developing a drug all the way through from an idea to approval is something that requires investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars," Hansen said. The typical timeline to initiate a program is somewhere north of a decade.

The global biotechnology market size is expected to reach US$2.44 trillion by 2028, according to a new report.

“If you made the analogy to the semiconductor industry, this would be like the 1950s—no one is yet understanding that we're going to have supercomputers in our pockets—and biotechnology is on that trajectory."

3. “Our goal is be the undisputed leader in antibody development in the world."

AbCellera has big ambitions for global success – while remaining in Vancouver

AbCellera's technology uses AI to identify potential therapeutics in human antibodies. Instead of trying to bring their own therapeutic products to approval, they assemble modern technologies to identify the molecule from our natural antibody response that can be moved forward into a potential drug.

With the success of bamlanivimab, Hansen told us that he wants to maintain and extend the company's global lead for developing leading antibody technology for decades to come.

“What you're going to see from us is R&D—you're going to see technology, licensing and acquisition and probably most importantly, building out the capacity, the people, the systems, the infrastructure that allow us to have as big an impact as possible on the entire industry," he said.

As a Canadian, it's important to Hansen to do that important work right here at home.

In April of this year, AbCellera announced plans for a new 380,000 square-foot headquarters in Vancouver. They'll also double their current headcount by the end of 2021, with a focus on software, engineering, and bioscience talent.

“The biggest ambition is to show the world that when you take a long view on technology and you get the right people in place, you can build an organization that people are proud to be a part of and one that has a real positive impact in the space and in particular in making it easier and faster to get therapies to patients," said Hansen.

“And I do believe that that that starts with getting the people right and the technology and the mission of the company. And I feel like we're on we're on a great path."

This article originally appeared on the RBC Healthcare - Advice & Learning


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