Influential Women In Business: Karimah Es Sabar

A deep love of science and persistence in pursuit of her goals have helped Karimah Es Sabar go far in the world of pharmaceutical research 

Karimah Es Sabar, president and CEO of the Centre for Drug Research and Development, near one of the research labs she administers | Photo: Chung Chow

Karimah Es Sabar was in the midst of reading Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist as she and her family were deciding whether to leave her native Kenya in the early 2000s.

After globe-trotting throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a stint in Canada, she had grown accustomed to life back in her home country during the previous seven years. Es Sabar married her husband in Kenya, raised their two children there and was leading her second biotech startup at the time.

“But we had a horrible home invasion when we lived there,” Es Sabar said. “We had seven armed gunmen who came into our home.”

That’s when Es Sabar encountered a passage in The Alchemist that helped her realize it was time to return to Canada after having first moved there in 1988 to pursue marketing and business development at Connaught Laboratories.

“When you want something,” Coelho wrote, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

It was settled. Es Sabar and her family headed for Vancouver, where she would serve as chief operating officer at Medsurge Medical Inc. and help take the company public.

“That’s the time when you really value and appreciate security and safety and freedom of movement,” she said.

Es Sabar, who since 2011 has served as president and CEO of the Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD), Canada’s national drug development and commericialization organization, has done business in nearly 60 countries after landing her first job in the pharmaceutical industry with Boots UK in the 1980s.

After Es Sabar moved on from Medsurge, she took the helm of BC Biotech in 2005.

She rebranded the industry association into LifeSciences British Columbia and built it into a business development organization for the sector that brought together academia, government and the industry.

“During my time there we raised over $1 billion in investment [that] went into biotech companies in B.C.,” she said. “And at that time, the CDRD was being conceived by a group of scientists at [the University of British Columbia]. We needed an organization like this to do drug development … commercializing those technologies and spinning out companies.”

Since joining the CDRD in 2009 as senior vice-president of business and strategic affairs, she’s helped it expand with partnerships throughout the country and in eight other countries.

But she didn’t originally intend to work on the business side of science.

Instead, she studied chemistry and biochemistry for her undergraduate degree at the University of Salford in Manchester, England. She then studied neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“When I was in university I loved science very much, very deeply,” Es Sabar said. But after completing a thesis on the effects of light on retinal damage, she realized she had a much greater passion for the business side of the industry, where she interacted with people far more frequently.

“And I didn’t want to be at the bench [in a laboratory], primarily because I didn’t love animal work as much.”

Es Sabar said young people frequently ask her whether they should study science like she did before getting into the business side of the industry.

“Because I was passionate about science and I enjoyed it, I followed my heart to some extent and my head to some extent,” she said. “If you do something you like and are passionate about, you’re likely to do it well and excel in it.”

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