The motto of Vancouver-based biotechnology business STEMCELL Technologies is “scientists helping scientists.” And it’s an idea that founder and CEO Dr. Allen Eaves applies very literally. STEMCELL develops products and services to support academic research, particularly research related to stem cells. Because of this, Eaves tends to hire scientists then offer them business training rather than vice versa. “It’s much easier to teach scientists the principles of business than it is to teach someone neurobiology,” says Eaves. A large proportion of Eaves’s staff have a Ph.D. in a relevant scientific field—including 40% of his sales team.
Eaves made the leap himself from hematology and cancer research to entrepreneurship in 1993. “Having expertise is central to what we do,” he says. “But we have to come up with new ideas and new products, and then we have to market and sell them.” With that imperative in mind, Eaves offers his employees a kind of business boot camp in which, over a period of several months, staffers take courses in everything from project management to pricing to marketing and sales. It’s proven very popular. “Everyone understands that business runs the world, so people like getting that other perspective and feeling competitive in it,” he says.
But not too competitive: Eaves says the company’s vibe is less cutthroat, more collaborative—even when it comes to rivals. “We’re trying to give people the tools to do cancer and other research better, so we do a deep analysis of what our customers need and we try to give them those tools,” he says. “If we think a competitor’s product will help them, we’ll tell them.” A less confident entrepreneur might balk at the notion, but Eaves is not hurting for business. (The company pours 14 to 15% of its revenue into research and development—a disproportionately high amount, according to Eaves, and something he considers a key competitive advantage.)
Maintaining a highly collaborative environment where employees are amenable to learning new skills starts with hiring practices. STEMCELL looks for prospective employees with a proven track record in relevant scientific research, but also business acumen (that is, a willingness to learn the dollars-and-cents stuff) and social skills. Eaves has come to recognize markers: “I look at their resumé to see what else they’ve done. Were they part of a student biotech network? Did they play sports? We want to see anything that demonstrates social skills, which is very important,” says Eaves. “We’re not after prima donnas pushing for a Nobel Prize.”
As the sole owner of the company, Eaves has the freedom—unfettered by shareholders or other investors—to craft his company exactly as he likes. “I’m not really interested in making money,” he says. “I’m interested in making quality products.” Of course it’s easier to say that when his work is generating serious cash. “We’re growing at about 25% this year, and our sales are going to be about a billion dollars,” Eaves says. “My biggest problem now is hiring enough people.”