Meet Allen Eaves: Academic Biologist turned CEO

Dr Allen Eaves founded the Terry Fox Laboratory for Haematology and Oncology Research with his wife Dr Connie Eaves and was the lab’s Director for 25 years, from 1981 to 2006. He was also Professor and Head of Clinical Haematology at the University of British Columbia for 18 years. He is now Founder, President and CEO of STEMCELL Technologies Inc.

We caught up with Allen to find out more about life as a CEO, the role of companies in stem cell research and what keeps him interested in research.


After starting out as an academic researcher, how did you come to be CEO of your own company?

We founded the Terry Fox Lab in Vancouver in 1981. It was just a small group then so we didn’t have a lot of money, but we needed a hormone called erythropoietin for our research. Erythropoeitin tells blood stem cells to make more red blood cells, which is a process we were very interested in. You can buy erythropoietin for research quite easily now, but back when we set up the Terry Fox lab we had to collect urine samples from people who were very anaemic and purify the erythropoietin from that source. Then we sold it to colleagues around the world who were doing similar sorts of research, and that gave us a little money to build up our lab – to hire people, do renovations, buy equipment and so on. But it also allowed us to buy the very best quality substances,  or ‘reagents’, for growing our cells. We tested batches of reagents and then bought the very best ones in bulk, and the result was that we could put together really good growth media – the specialized mixtures that cells are grown in. Because we could afford to make sure we always had the best raw materials, we could standardize the media we made so that it always reached a set high quality.

After a while I had about 10 people in the lab making the growth media and shipping it around the world. The members of the British Columbia Cancer Foundation suggested I form a company to do all this on a bigger scale, in a dedicated facility that would meet good manufacturing standards. So I mortgaged our house and I got a loan from the Government and went into business! That was in 1993 and we’ve been growing the business ever since. Now we have about 450 employees and we provide a range of standardized reagents for growing various types of stem cells.  

"STEMCELL provides high quality, standardized, reproducible reagents that work the way researchers want them to work."

Have you left your academic roots completely behind you?
No, definitely not. The money we made when we started the company was used to support our research in the Terry Fox Lab, and it still is to a certain extent. Five years ago I had to retire from the University when I reached 65 so I’ve been working in the company pretty well full time since then. I’d done various different things in the academic environment and I was feeling pretty good about life in general so this was something different to do when I retired.  But at STEMCELL Technologies we’re very keen to not get too big too fast and to work closely with our research colleagues in academia and in industry to carefully fulfill their needs for high quality reagents and instruments. I run the company sort of like a graduate school with lots of creative young scientists doing neat things; the idea is to have lots of people in the company who are really knowledgeable about what they’re doing and yet still remain in touch with research.

Why does stem cell research need companies? What role do companies play?
There is no question that for STEMCELL Technologies the role is to provide high quality, standardized, reproducible reagents that just work every time, the way we say they are going to work and the way researchers want them to work. And that of course saves researchers a whole lot of time – they don’t have to make up the mixtures for growing their cells from scratch. Years ago, the students or post-doctoral researchers in a lab had to make up all the different solutions and growth media the lab needed. Invariably someone would make a mistake and there wasn’t the quality control that goes into all our reagents now. We screen and test very carefully all the raw materials that go into our products, and then once they’re made we re-test and re-screen them very rigorously to make sure they meet our standards. That just can’t happen in a single lab because researchers don’t have the resources, time or even the skills to do all those tests on a routine basis for all the reagents they use. Culture media have got pretty sophisticated so it is now quite a serious thing to put them together properly with all the different components they contain. Buying reagents that are already validated to do what they’re supposed to do is really a great saving for researchers.  Not everybody sees it that way because they think they can do it themselves and make the reagents cheaper. That’s true, they often can, but a small mistake can ruin an experiment that maybe takes a month or two before you get the result. So then you’ve lost a whole lot of time and that’s a very costly thing to have happen in your lab.

"We provide the picks and shovels for the stem cell gold rush."

So you’re saving researchers lots of time, which is great. Does involving companies in research have any other benefits?
Another advantage of having a company that focuses solely on making standardized, quality regents is that the company’s products help standardize research being carried out in lots of different labs. Before we started making reagents for growing blood stem cells, people in different labs were using different batches of raw material to make up their media to feed their cells, and things were just not really the same from one lab to another. That makes it very difficult to compare results and move everyone’s knowledge forward.

So that’s the niche that STEMCELL Technologies resides in. It’s really helping researchers do their research better by providing standardized, high quality tools. I jokingly say we provide the picks and shovels for the stem cell gold rush. We’re not trying to find the gold; we just provide the tools that will help scientists make those discoveries.

Your products are mostly used in research labs. Could they play any role in growing cells for treating patients?

We started out only making reagents for research use only (RUO). But pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies like our products and are asking us to produce them to meet good manufacturing practice (GMP) standards so they can be used to grow cells that might be given to patients. The trouble is, you need an expensive special set-up and specialized procedures to make sure the cells that are ultimately produced will meet stringent clinical standards – and finally there’s always a lot of uncertainty in clinical research as to whether it will really happen. Treatment development is still in its early stages and clinical trials that are planned don’t always go ahead.

So we try to keep a balance. Most of our sales are still for research use only, for academics and people doing research in industry. Of course we are moving towards higher clinical standards in our production facilities but when somebody wants something in large quantities we contract that out to a GMP production facility that has all the processes and procedures in place. We don’t want to lose our emphasis on products for research because that really keeps us connected to the people doing the new and creative stuff that’s going to lead to new developments in the future.

What do you think the stem cell and regenerative medicine research field will look like in 10 years’ time?
The stem cell dream is eventually all going to come true! The question is, in what time frame? Investors want a short time frame because they want their money back in 3 to 5 years, so they may not want to invest in this area because it’s going to take too much time. But what we can see happening now in basic research on stem cells is amazing – things like the discovery of iPS cells – this is going to revolutionize the way medicine is done. It’s going to take 20 to 50 years, maybe even more, to realise all the potential we can imagine today but in the long term I believe anything that we can imagine is possible.

"It’s going to take 20 to 50 years, maybe even more, to realise all the potential we can imagine today but in the long term I believe anything that we can imagine is possible."

As a company providing reagents to this field of research, it’s a very stable business. With an aging population and everybody wanting to live forever, this is a good field to be in! It’s also a fun field to be in because you’re making all these observations which are really serious discoveries and your eyes get opened to all the things that are possible – this is just a wonderful and exciting period. 

What do you think are some of the big challenges for taking stem cell research to the clinic?
Healthcare systems will need to be ready to adapt and have the financial resources to take on the new treatments when we get them ready for the clinic. I spent my life basically as an academic researcher and a hospital administrator – I was Head of Haematology for 18 years and built a major bone marrow transplant programme. I didn’t do that by carrying out the transplants myself but by getting the funds and hiring the right people to do it, and making all the arguments why this new treatment modality is a good thing to do. That’s tough in a publicly funded health system where money is short. But although private healthcare is capable of delivering the latest, and often very expensive, therapies, a private system isn’t the whole solution either; public money is critical because it funds a lot of important basic and clinical research. I think we need a balance – a public system and a private system complementing each other. In my view, a balanced approach is the key to developing both a good healthcare system and a vibrant basic science community that feeds our clinical needs. It’s quite a challenge and different countries manage these issues differently.

Whatever the system, you need government support of research, no question. And not just the support, but also policies that make sure the rules controlling research are not so stringent that you can’t get the clinical materials you need to do the work. Why do we use mice to do a lot of our research? Because most basic researchers don’t have access to bone marrow and blood from patients. If you ask patients, they want you to have their blood or other tissue, but then they have to fill out a complex consent form with a doctor or nurse there who really doesn’t have the time to explain it. So there are a lot of barriers put in place to protect both patients and hospital administrators and I think this has gone too far. Linking patients, doctors and good researchers who can use patient samples in an effective way is definitely an important thing we have to deal with better.

"The most exciting part of this: you as an individual or a small group of individuals can really change the world for the better. And it’s fun; it’s a great intellectual challenge."

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in research?
There’s no question that when you’re working in this area and related areas, one individual can change the world! And that’s not true in most jobs. I like to think that just around the corner we’re going to come up with some better way of doing things or stumble on some new discovery that will totally change the way we treat disease. I think that’s the most exciting part of this: that you as an individual or a small group of individuals can really change the world for the better. And it’s fun; it’s a great intellectual challenge.

Find out more

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Images copyright STEMCELL Technologies.

Updated by: Emma Kemp

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