This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's Life Sciences issue.
In sum: It all started with QLT. Before a group of University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers founded what was then known as Quadra Logic Technologies in the early 1980s, the province’s biotech sector was virtually non-existent.
By the end of the 2010s, annual revenue for the B.C. life sciences sector reached $5.4 billion, according to a 2021 report commissioned by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.
And as of 2019, Metro Vancouver was home to 1,300 organizations and 16,000 workers that the BioTalent Canada labour market intelligence firm determined to be part of the country’s “bio-economy.”
Since the 2019 numbers were calculated, B.C. has seen activity in the sector ramp up with the likes of AbCellera Biologics and Aurinia Pharmaceuticals raising hundreds of millions of dollars after going public in 2020.
But this decades-long journey really only began in earnest when those aforementioned UBC researchers turned their attention to photo-activated drugs and eventually partnered with American Cyanamid to develop the light-activated drug Photofrin in the mid-1980s. But it would not be until a decade later that QLT would reach its zenith, employing nearly 500 workers in B.C.
The company was best known for developing treatments for wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD), a leading cause of vision loss for those 50 and older.
Co-founder Julia Levy led the company at its height, with shares reaching $127 by 1999 before ultimately cratering in the decade to come as legal cases mounted and competitors began entering the market with their own treatments for wet AMD.
As QLT was getting its start in the early 1980s, researcher Allen Eaves was launching the Terry Fox Laboratory before becoming head of hematology at UBC and Vancouver General Hospital in 1985.
To subsidize the increasingly expensive research at the Terry Fox Laboratory, Eaves began selling tissue culture media to labs around the world.
“It just took off, and that was sort of unexpected,” Eaves said in 2017. “I didn’t know much about business.”
Members of the BC Cancer Foundation kept suggesting to Eaves that he start a company before he finally spun off Stemcell Technologies from the Terry Fox Laboratory in 1993. “They pushed me out a bit,” he said, chuckling, “which was good.”
Stemcell Technologies specializes in developing the media and processes that make it easier to grow stem cells in research labs around the globe. Or, as founder and CEO Eaves puts it: “We’re providing the picks and shovels for the stem-cell gold rush.”
By the 2020s, Stemcell had expanded to become the largest biotech company in the province, employing more than 1,000 workers.
Meanwhile, nanomedicine researcher Pieter Cullis had launched his own lab at UBC in the late 1970s. It would eventually deliver critical components used in the messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccines Canadians received from Pfizer.
The lab started with a focus on delivering anti-cancer drugs into the human body with more precision and “having less of them [delivered] to sites that might be vulnerable to the toxic side effects,” he says.
After 15 years, the team decided to have a go at delivering much larger particles.
“To give you an idea of the scale, the molecular weight of the common anti-cancer drug would be around about 500 and then the molecular weight of a piece of RNA that we first started to work with was 13,000,” Cullis says.
Those mRNA vaccines are dependent on the lipid nanoparticle technology (LNP) developed by Cullis and his team.
The vaccine provides instructions to the cells in the body to make a protein on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. When the body produces that protein, the immune system recognizes it as being foreign and produces a response against it.
The problem is that mRNA is easily broken down by the body and cannot enter cells without help.
But Cullis’ research eventually led to the launch of UBC spin-off Acuitas Therapeutics in the 2000s, which developed LNP technology used for gene therapy to treat transthyretin-induced amyloidosis, a rare disease that results in the build-up of proteins in the body’s tissue and organs.
Eventually that made-in-B.C. tech was also used as a delivery vehicle that allowed the mRNA to travel through the human body and enter cells unharmed.
Many vaccine skeptics have been taking aim at the speed at which these mRNA vaccines were developed. However, the building blocks behind these vaccines have been in the works for decades.
The pandemic also brought with it a cascading wave of innovation advancements and capital emanating from the West Coast life sciences scene.
At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, Victoria’s Starfish Medical was tasked by Ottawa to build 7,500 ventilators for patients across Canada; Richmond’s BioLytical Labs developed a COVID-19 antigen test for home use that was recently approved by Health Canada; and the Vancouver-based Digital Technology Supercluster began deploying $60 million in funding to COVID-19-related projects that launched 16 collaborations between firms like Zymeworks and Variational AI.
“We were, I will say, ahead of the ask. We were developing a pipeline of potential projects that could address specific issues relevant to COVID,” Sue Paish, CEO of the Digital Technology Supercluster and former CEO of LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services, says of the efforts to bring about partnerships across multiple industries prior to Ottawa’s request to direct federal funding to the campaign
The industry also experienced notable acquisitions during this period.
U.S. innovation giant Danaher purchased Vancouver-based Precision Nanosystems Inc. (PNI) in June 2021, just months after Ottawa earmarked $25 million to help the biotech build a $50 million biomanufacturing plant. The company has promised to meet its obligations to the federal government regarding future vaccine production.
PNI is best known for producing technology to develop and manufacture genetics medicines that deliver RNA or DNA directly into cells to treat disease at its molecular root cause. PNI specializes in a class of vaccines known as self-amplifying RNA vaccines. These have the potential to create more potent vaccines as they amplify the signal, allowing PNI to manufacture more doses for less volume.
Earlier in the year, Danaher-owned life sciences company Cytiva took aim at another B.C. biotech.
It purchased Burnaby-based Vanrx Pharmasystems, which creates robotic machines capable of safely filling liquid drugs into vials, syringes and cartridges. Customers have used its machines for everything from animal tranquilizers to gene therapies.
Meanwhile, AbCellera Biologics kicked off the stampede of more than a dozen B.C. unicorns – companies valued at US$1 billion or more – that emerged from the pandemic as investors rushed to pour capital into B.C.’s innovation ecosystem.
The company, best known for specializing in antibody discovery and partnering up with American pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly on a COVID-19 treatment, raised US$555 million through a blockbuster initial public offering (IPO) in December 2020.
Within months it made clear its designs on the future, revealing plans for a new 380,000-square-foot headquarters in Vancouver as well as a 130,000-square-foot production facility a few kilometres away in the city’s east side. It now plans to build up a roster of 1,000 workers in the next six years — up from the 200 workers it had prior to the IPO.
“We know that we have ground to make up in terms of biomanufacturing nationally, and we’re incredibly excited to partner with the Government of Canada in the development of this facility and help us respond faster next time,” Murray McCutcheon, AbCellera’s vice-president of corporate development, said at the time of the production plant’s announcement in 2021.
McCutcheon said a biotech company – one heavily dependent on lab equipment and in-person collaboration – needs to have all its workers based in Vancouver.
“Historically they’ve [local university grads] had to seek those opportunities south of the border,” says AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen.
“That’s one of the reasons it is so important to have these facilities here in Vancouver. You don’t want to push people out to the suburbs if you can be anywhere. People want to have that great place to work, the environment, the energy of the city, and they want to be working at the cutting edge of something they think is moving the needle for society.”