An Interview with Dr. Allen Eaves on women, STEMCELL and SCWIST
Written by: Janny Marie Peterslund
SCWIST interviewed Dr. Allen Eaves, CEO and Founder of the STEMCELL Group of Companies, including STEMCELL Technologies Inc., Malachite Management Inc., STEMSOFT Software Inc., and Connexon Creative about how women fit into BC’s largest biotech company and why STEMCELL sponsors SCWIST.
Congratulations on recently being awarded the Life Sciences Company of the Year 2015 by BC Life Sciences. That is very impressive. STEMCELL’s slogan is ‘Scientists Helping Scientists’, and it seems that you believe in that very much. How much are you ‘Scientists Helping Scientists’, and how much are you a business?
We are all about helping researchers, and about truth and honesty. We try to understand the needs of our customers, and if we do that right, we’ll also earn lots of money. It’s the quality and novelty of our products that counts.
I put all our revenue back into the company to make it a big company. The fact that we can only grow with our revenue is a very good discipline. Because we grow 15-18% a year we have to anticipate the need for future staff well, as it takes 3-6 months to train them.
STEMCELL is privately owned by yourself. You don’t have investors, because you had a product, MethoCult, that you could sell right from the start. This is a rather unique business model in the biotech industry where we often see companies in need of funding for many years before they have a product on the shelf. Was this a conscious business model on your part or did it ‘just happen’ that way?
A bit of both, really. You never have enough money when you’re doing research, so we started selling this well-made tissue culture medium for hematopoietic labs. We had all the best things and the BC Cancer Foundation wanted us to start our own company. I wasn’t really thinking about that, but I mortgaged my house and took a loan and we were in business. I didn’t know what would happen, but it just started to grow.
I had seen a number of my colleagues starting companies with investors, and investors usually have an exit strategy within three years, wanting to sell off the company. That’s not good for any business. Every scientist is an entrepreneur, really. You run that little business called your lab, trying to publish and get out there, working with administrators to get payments, so you’re an entrepreneur already.
You (STEMCELL) recently signed a 5-year sponsorship agreement with SCWIST, why did you choose to sponsor SCWIST?
We have a lot of women here, and I think women have a rough time in science, certainly in academia, because having children takes you out of ‘circulation’ for a little while. You have to be very driven, compared to a lot of males who have it a little easier, and I’m all about equality.
We need more women in science with jobs, and there are not the jobs in Canada that there should be. We want a knowledge-based economy, not a resource-based one. Women are very good at science; they are more careful, more analytical. They’re better, often. Things definitely work better when you have a mix of males and females.
How many women are working at STEMCELL?
More women than men. Do we pay everybody the same? Yes. There’s no discrepancy between men or women in salaries, it’s only based on qualifications.
STEMCELL has an above-average rate of women higher up in the organization compared to other biotech companies. Why is that and do you have any specific policies to attract women?
In the typical biotech, there’s a lot of risk, and I think men are prepared to take more risks, especially when they’re younger. When a company matures, it becomes more stable, and attracts more women, I think. Women are probably more conservative than males, when you are young, but that equals as you get older.
We don’t have specific policies; we just go for the best people. There are a lot of smart women out there and we want them all!
Women often mention two things when explaining the lack of women in manager and executive positions: 1) the general ‘female lack of self-confidence’, and 2) the lack of cheap childcare. What do you think is the explanation?
There is no question that having children puts you back in the competition for jobs, as it takes you out of the workforce for a while. For whatever reason, probably cultural, women tend to look after the kids more. I don’t have the answer to all this, there are a lot of men who stay at home now, and that seems to work really well too.
Should politicians go out and make specific policies?
Giving women extra perks would be good, as women could come back earlier. We do that here, people can come back part-time, and that works well for many jobs. Women are excellent at organizing, both at work and at home. Many women are very keen on managing both their careers as well as their family, and they make good managers.
Would you go for women in certain positions and men in others?
No, we want the best people. Ideally, having the mix is what you want to strive for. You want to have a gender balance because the work environment is better.
SCWIST welcomes men, and anyone supporting women in science. Women seem better at organizing themselves in such organizations. Will men eventually lose out and women take over, do you think?
The underlying value is really quality of life and educational opportunities, keeping up with the field. Most scientific organizations including men are focused on the science only, not on the work-life balance and building opportunities for the family to thrive. I think an organization focusing on science and the quality of life would be very successful.
You are BC’s largest biotech company, with just over 650 employees worldwide, most of them in Canada. Where is STEMCELL going, long-term? Will you stay in BC?
First of all, you want the research to be very close to the manufacturing to work efficiently, and we have highly skilled labour here. North America is the largest market and we want to be close to that, also to make it cost-effective.
I want to turn Vancouver into Science City. Hire all these smart kids that are training at UBC and SFU and give them opportunities.
I have a question for you, actually. What is the difference between SCWIST and the other women’s organizations that are out there?
At SCWIST, our focus is on several levels, in that we have outreach and mentorship programs under ms infinity, engaging girls and young women in learning about science; IWIS, helping internationally trained professionals to start a career in Canada, we organize events, workshops and networking opportunities for women in early-mid career; and we have an online mentorship database, MakePossible, for women looking to advance their career by finding a mentor or becoming one. And our members can engage with and give back to the scientific community through volunteer opportunities. We bring it full circle, essentially.
Thank you so much, Dr. Eaves, for talking to us at SCWIST. We look forward to our future collaboration!