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AbCellera cementing its biotech ambitions with 380k-sq-ft Vancouver campus

B.C. biotech to open two facilities in 2023 and 2024
Work site at West Fourth Avenue between Manitoba and Columbia streets | Photo: Tyler Orton

While AbCellera Biologics Inc. (Nasdaq:ABCL) has been on a skyward trajectory the past year, the B.C. biotech’s next destination is, for now, planted firmly in the ground.

The company broke ground earlier this year on its new Mount Pleasant campus, with two facilities located blocks away from the current head office on Yukon Street.

“We're tremendously excited at the opportunity to plant our stake in Vancouver for the long term,” Murray McCutcheon, AbCellera’s head of corporate development, told BIV.

“There is a scarcity of lab opportunities in Vancouver, and to plan for our long-term success we need custom-built labs that suit our purposes.”

The biotech company, best known for specializing in antibody discovery and partnering up with American pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. (NYSE:LLY) on a COVID-19 treatment, raised US$555 million through a blockbuster initial public offering in December 2020.

It now plans to nearly double its 250-person roster by year’s end and hire 1,000 workers over the next seven years.

While B.C.-based digital technology firms have been enticing global talent to work for them remotely, 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,” said 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.”

The new campus sitting on West Fourth Avenue between Columbia and Manitoba will total 380,000 square feet, with one facility sitting at 210,000 square feet and the other sitting at 170,000 square feet. The sites are expected to be completed in 2023 and 2024.

McCutcheon said the labs have been custom-designed to bring together research that cuts across biology, software development and machine learning.

The company sent out requests for proposal a year ago across Metro Vancouver and Ontario in a bid to find a site for its new campus.

AbCellera received 50 responses but it was ultimately the two sites located blocks away from the current headquarters in Mount Pleasant that ended up being the best fit.

“We think this is an extraordinary opportunity to continue to grow the company in Mount Pleasant,” McCutcheon said.

The company is also planning on opening an antibody manufacturing facility in Metro Vancouver with the help of $175 million in backing from Ottawa.

“Demands biotech puts on a building is like an office-user on steroids,” Kevin Nelson, an executive vice-president at CBRE Group Inc. and a member of the real estate services firm’s High Technology Facilities Group, told BIV earlier this year.  

“It requires additional air exchange and mechanical systems to support that. It generally requires a little bit more power than a classic office-user. It requires drainage in places that office-users never classically would need.”

As such, commercial space for biotechs is in short supply across Metro Vancouver, putting a squeeze on small life sciences startups that aren’t as well capitalized as AbCellera.

“The reality is that we have a lack of facilities for companies that are at the point where they're about to go to scale,” Hansen said.

“And you need to solve the facilities problems yourself as a company scales. With the support of the City [of Vancouver] and with the work that we've done, the momentum [of the IPO], we're able to scale it. But there is a real risk that if we don't solve these things, companies like AbCellera will go south of the border, or even worse, they never get to scale and we lose an opportunity for economic growth.”

A June 2020 government report – prepared prior to the pandemic – reveals B.C.’s life sciences sector recorded nearly $5.4 billion in revenue in 2018. That’s up 5.6% from 2017.

A total of 17,300 British Columbians were employed at 1,120 businesses across the life sciences sector as of 2018.

Industry employment grew 5.6% between 2017 and 2018, while the number of businesses grew 4.7% during that same period.

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