2017 BC CEO Awards: Allen Eaves

The accidental CEO: Allen Eaves spent more than three decades as a cancer researcher before launching a company that now employs 1,100 people
Stemcell Technologies CEO Allen Eaves: “we’re providing the picks and shovels for the stem-cell gold rush” | Rob Kruyt  

Allen Eaves spent his working life fighting with hospital administrators and university deans over funding.

“There are limitations they have,” the founder and CEO of Stemcell Technologies said of the suits with whom he used to negotiate for cancer research funding. “With business, there are no limits.”

Now that the medical doctor turned entrepreneur is no longer hitting those same financial walls, Eaves speaks with pride about a corporate research budget pegged at $20 million for this year.

“Over the next 10 years, we’re going to spend $1 billion on research,” he said.

Finding money for health-care projects is no longer a problem for Eaves, whose privately held company is on pace for 20% revenue growth this year.

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 Eaves puts it: “We’re providing the picks and shovels for the stem-cell gold rush.”

And like the real gold rushes on this part of the continent, it all started by journeying west and diligently working away at untapped resources.

Eaves grew up in Nova Scotia and earned his PhD at the University of Toronto before he and his wife, researcher Connie Eaves, moved so that the latter could take a job at the BC Cancer Agency in 1974.

Eaves later launched the Terry Fox Laboratory in 1981 and went on to become head of hematology at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver General Hospital in 1985.

Stemcell Technologies spun off from the Terry Fox Laboratory in 1993, and since then it has grown to employ about 1,100 people working across four facilities in Metro Vancouver.

At 76, Eaves isn’t prepared to ease off the accelerator.

Stemcell Technologies recently signed a long-term lease in Burnaby, where it intends to consolidate its current Lower Mainland operations into a campus where the CEO hopes to employ 4,000 to 5,000 workers within 15 years.

It’s the kind of growth and big thinking one might find from entrepreneurs in startup hotbeds like Boston or the Silicon Valley.

Eaves, however, freely admits he never had designs on being a CEO in an emerging startup scene like Vancouver.

“I was going to be a researcher right from the word go because I thought cancer was a bad disease and that would be a good thing to spend one’s life working to try to cure,” he said. “That’s why I really went into medicine and research. Then as you get into it … it became trying to get money [for research funding].”

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. “I didn’t know much about business.”

In fact, it wasn’t even his idea to form a company.

Members of the BC Cancer Foundation kept suggesting it to him before Eaves finally spun off the company.

“They pushed me out a bit,” he said, chuckling, “which was good.”

By then he’d already earned a PhD and a doctor of medicine, so going back to school to study business in his 50s while leading a newly founded company wasn’t the most practical for him.

“It was all about self-education – I read a lot of books.”

Eaves said The One Minute Manager is his bible for management, and he makes sure to meet with all new employees to give them a sense of the company’s culture.

But beyond that, a more typical CEO might have trouble computing Eaves’ business strategies.

“There’s no board, there’s no investors pushing us, because I own the company outright. But people feel self-motivated and they all feel they’re doing something good. We’re not selling some trivial trinket. And so it’s very motivating,” he said.

“We just are very logical. We don’t take risks. But we are creative and innovative.”

The company has about 170 PhDs on its roster, and Eaves is proud of the diversity of its workforce, in which women account for 57% of employees and half the executives.

Meanwhile, Eaves said focusing on products made for research has sidestepped many of the problems other biotech companies face.

“We’re not trying to make products that are going to go for one big clinical home run, which is what investors want. They think that’s where all the money is. Well, that’s true … but it’s high risk. So we have over 2,000 catalogued items, so we’re not putting our money on any one thing.”

He still gets many requests from people interested in putting money into Stemcell Technologies, but Eaves said much of the company’s success derives from not being beholden to investors.

Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2017 BC CEO Awards November 8, 2017, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.

Q&A

What sort of leadership style does a CEO have to cultivate in the 21st century?
A successful CEO has to have a leadership style that encompasses an international perspective. The Canadian market is relatively small, so to be competitive and grow, one has to be successful in the global marketplace.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of creating jobs in Canadian industry for the many smart young people who love science, can’t get jobs in academia and have to leave Canada to find employment.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
It is challenging to resist taking money from investors in order to grow the company more rapidly. Investors have a short time frame, which frequently results in successful Canadian companies being sold to U.S. investors who move it south. Then everybody loses their jobs and Canada loses the employees’ knowledge, the intellectual property and potential future growth of the company.

What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?
None.

What is the one business lesson you’d like to pass on to others?
Read The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, and Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: What You Must Do to Increase the Value of Your Growing Firm by Verne Harnish.

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