Originally published on BCRegMed. Permission was granted by Elizabeth Bulaeva to republish an extract of this article on the Michael Smith Laboratories website. This article highlights Dr. Carl Hansen of AbCellera, a spinoff company from the Michael Smith Laboratories. Read the full article on BCRegMed.
Written by Elizabeth Bulaeva, BCREGMED
Can one company simultaneously work on solving the problems of Ebola, influenza, neurodegeneration, cancer, tuberculosis, and enterotoxicogenic E. coli? If you are AbCellera, a Vancouver-based biotech on the hunt for novel antibodies that can be used to fight these diseases, the answer is yes. The company has built the world’s leading platform for the discovery of monoclonal antibodies and the profiling of natural immune responses. This proprietary platform, which uses a combination of microfluidics, genomics, microscopy, and machine learning, allows for screening millions of single immune cells in a single day in order to find rare antibodies that are suitable for development as the next-generation therapeutic antibodies. Working with some of the world’s most innovative biotech and pharma companies, AbCellera is harnessing the power of natural immune responses to help develop new therapies across diseases including cancer, inflammation, neurodegeneration, viral infections, and fibrosis.
Earlier this year, the company was named LifeSciences BC’s Growth Stage Company of the Year. The company’s growth is undeniable: it has quadrupled in size over the last three years, and, having outgrown its original UBC location, has recently moved to a brand new facility on Yukon street. The company employs over fifty people, most of them homegrown, BC talent, and continues to hire and expand.
The BC REGMed team met AbCellera’s CEO, Dr. Carl Hansen, at the company’s new facility. The bottom floor, an airy, open-concept space, holds collaborative working spaces for the engineering, bioinformatics, operations, and business development teams. The laboratories, located on the floor above, are all shiny glass and still have the distinctive, plastic smell of newly unpacked equipment when we visit, a few weeks after the company’s move from UBC. We sat down with Carl to talk about how AbCellera began, the exciting projects they are currently working on, and his philosophy of success and innovation.
AbCellera got its start at UBC
AbCellera’s roots are firmly planted at UBC, and not just because the company was first formed in 2012 on the UBC campus, where Carl is an associate professor. Carl’s own journey, that eventually led him to take on some of the world’s deadliest diseases via antibody discovery, began at UBC, where he completed a degree in engineering physics before moving to Caltech in California for his PhD in Applied Physics and Biotech, in the lab of scientist and inventor Steve Quake.
“After completing my undergraduate studies in Engineering Physics, I was looking for an opportunity to connect with the biological sciences, a field that seemed so ripe with opportunities for science and innovation,” Carl tells us. “The opportunity to work on microfluidics with Steve Quake at Caltech was a perfect opportunity to bridge engineering and biotech. Most importantly, from grad school through to my work as a faculty member at UBC, this field has given me the chance to work alongside world-class researchers in multiple fields where I had no formal training. Over the years this has given me the opportunity to stay on a steep learning curve.”
Microfluidics is a technology that deals with the control and manipulation of fluids at a tiny scale. Shortly before Carl arrived at Caltech, a new type of microfluidic device with active microvalves had been developed that promised to allow for increased complexity and better control of fluidic circuits. For the next four years, he worked with a small team dedicated to taking this technology from proof-of-concept to something capable of making many thousands of valves on a device. That was the technology he took to UBC.
“At UBC I set up a group trying to use microfluidic technology to miniaturize and improve the capabilities of biomedical research broadly,” he says. As it turned out, because it allowed media manipulation and flow through small chambers, the microfluidics technology was particularly well suited for performing single-cell analysis, the growing field of making measurements on individual cells to help understand biological complexity.
“I have benefited from close collaborations with terrific researchers from MSL (Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC) and the BC Cancer Research Centre, including Connie Eaves and Keith Humphries, Jamie Piret, Chip Haynes, Marco Marra, and Sam Aparicio. Through those projects we put in place fundamental capabilities in culturing cells, in measuring the genomic and RNA content of cells, and in performing single-cell secretion measurements,” Carl explains. “Our work was motivated by a desire to enable basic biomedical research. It wasn’t focused on translation or starting a company.
“In 2012, three things came together: first, I had my tenure which allows you to take some bigger chances in your career. Second, the single-cell analysis technologies we developed were well established. And third, I had trained a really outstanding group of engineers and scientists who were either graduating or finishing post-docs and now looking for a new opportunity to stay in science and in Vancouver. There were not many positions in biotech, so we decided to start AbCellera. This decision was made easier by the fact that I had, 2 years prior, been a co-founder of another company called Precision Nanosystems. Through that experience I had a good idea of how to get a company off the ground and knew that great things could be accomplished here in BC.”