AbCellera breaks ground on Phase II of Vancouver HQ

The biotech juggernaut is all in on Mount Pleasant.

From left to right: Ryan Beedie, Carl Hansen, Véronique Lecault, Murray McCutcheon, Tina Tett, Rob Fiorvento.

Breaking news, quite literally: AbCellera has broken ground on Phase II of its Vancouver HQ.

On Tuesday, B.C.’s tech ecosystem joined AbCellera executives as the first shovels were placed in the dirt at 110 W 4th Avenue, the Mount Pleasant address that will soon be home to the company’s 380,000-square-foot global headquarters. The world-class biotech campus will employ hundreds of highly-skilled technical personnel and dramatically improve the discovery and development of antibody-based medicines.

Like a movie premiere (“coming 2025” was displayed on the construction hoardings off 4th Ave), the groundbreaking was a well-attended affair. Some notable guests included MLA for Vancouver-False Creek and parliamentary secretary for technology and innovation Brenda Bailey, MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey David Eby, Mayor Kennedy Stewart, BC Tech Association president and CEO Jill Tipping, Beedie (the company behind the HQ’s construction) president Ryan Beedie, Beedie general manager Rob Fiorvento, and LifeSciences BC president and CEO Wendy Hurlburt. Nobody appeared to spit on anybody a la Harry Styles, though.

Instead, the vibe was that of excitement. As Vancouver continues to mature as a city, it's small surprise that its anchor companies continue to grow along with it; back in April, CEO Dr. Carl Hansen was “borderline offended” at the prospect that his biotech outfit would not craft a robust presence in Vancouver. That was certainly in the air yesterday, as well. On that day and likely many days in the future, if the groundbreaking was any indication, there was an overwhelming sense it was a no-brainer. It’s natural that a company such as AbCellera would choose the city for its HQ.

“When planning our global headquarters, we knew that as a [Vancouver-founded] company — founded out of Carl’s lab out at UBC — Vancouver is where we wanted to build and grow the company,” said Murray McCutcheon, AbCellera’s senior vice president of corporate development.

AbCellera co-founder Véronique Lecault then joked this sprawling new campus is a far cry from the pink-painted walls of that UBC lab, walls that eventually started to close in. “At some point, we grew big enough and it was time to move on from the university,” she said. “And we made a deliberate decision to stay close to the heart of the city. And it turns out that when discovering new medicines, we needed a lab. But lab space is actually not that easy to find in Vancouver.”

North East Entrance of AbCellera’s campus at 110 W 4th Avenue in Vancouver. Rendering by Francl Architecture.

So, AbCellera is building its own space, an HQ estimated to be the largest purpose-built lab in Western Canada. “We've got immense respect for AbCellera’s willingness to do that,” Katie Maslechko, director of development at Beedie, said. “It's not easy, but someone has to be first. You've already seen the proof in the pudding in terms of the types of innovative companies that are wanting to be quite literally here. It's been really great to see [AbCellera] lead the way in that.”

“With this campus, we're committing to long-term investments in Vancouver, contributing to the post-pandemic economic recovery, and shaping the future economic growth of our city,” McCutcheon adds. “With this project, we are creating the kind of very specialized biotech lab facilities that AbCellera and other life science companies need to empower medical breakthroughs that treat illness and save lives both here and around the world. At the same time, this biotech campus will create hundreds of new knowledge-based jobs in Vancouver.”

How many? A lot: AbCellera is currently about 450 people strong after hiring 125 people in the last 12 months with plans of ramping up, not slowing down. Those new hires will be working in the neighbourhood on pace to be the mecca of Vancouver’s tech offices. It was there that Terramerra welcomed the feds and federal funding earlier this summer. Invest Vancouver provided the DVD director’s cut on its agtech report just a few blocks over at the offices of agtech unicorn, Semios. Hootsuite is unmissable closer to Main Street. But, it’s AbCellera that dominates real estate east of Cambie and west of Clark. Lecault cited the vibrancy of the neighbourhood, gushing that creativity and innovation can be found in every corner, as the catalyst for her company to put down roots in Mount Pleasant.

The centre of it all is the HQ. Phase I’s construction was in plain sight at the groundbreaking of Phase II. The estimated completion is 2023 with Phase II coming two years later. Additional Mount Pleasant office spaces for AbCellera are 2131 Manitoba Street and 2215 Yukon Street. Rounding out the biotech firm’s suite of spaces is 810 Evans Ave, AbCellera’s 130,000-square-foot Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) manufacturing facility for the production of therapeutic antibodies — a first-of-its-kind space in Canada. Located closer to Strathcona, this space is particularly convenient to the future relocation of St. Paul’s Hospital.

All this construction, according to McCutchen, is in the name of building a vibrant sector, not just brick and mortar. “We see this as having immense spillover effects not only for the local community and businesses around here, but also as we look to grow this new [biotech] sector. For B.C., and for the country, we have a lot to offer — having an ecosystem of companies that look to gather in the same spot. It takes, usually, a first company like Biogen in Cambridge to say, ‘we're gonna build here.’ That starts to catalyze new developments, new companies. From there, it starts to grow and lift the sector together.”

Phase I of AbCellera’s campus at 150 W 4th Avenue in Vancouver. Rendering by Chernoff Thompson Architects.

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