Client Profile: Karimah Es Sabar, Chief Executive Officer & Partner, Quark Venture LP

Our president, Robert Simpson sat down with Karimah Es Sabar to talk about how she became a leader in the life science industry, her vision for the future of the industry in Canada, if she could have dinner with five people who would they be and why, what’s the one thing nobody knows about her, and if her life was made into a movie would it sell?

Robert: Let’s talk about your path, where you started and how you have landed where you are today.

Karimah: I think I’ve been one of these really blessed people who developed a love for science early on in my life, since my father gave me my very first chemistry set—which in those days you were allowed to give young kids. I became absolutely fascinated by chemistry. My love for chemistry, and science in general, drove me through my career. I went to university to do an undergraduate and joint honours degree in chemistry and biochemistry in Manchester at the University of Salford. From there, I went on and did my postgraduate work at the Institute of Psychiatry at London University.

I realized that I wanted to do the business of science, and so I luckily managed to get into the biopharma industry. I was very fortunate to have my first job at Boots Pharmaceuticals (Advil), which at the time was one of two billion-dollar companies listed, with the other being Pfizer (Diazepam).

I moved on from there and created my first start-up, a biopharmaceutical enterprise, marketing and distribution company at the age of 26 in Kenya. Afterwards, I worked with many biopharma companies like Sanofi Pasteur, fortunately at a time when the first Haemophilus Influenza B vaccine was developed, and I was the person responsible for marketing and business development internationally and launched it worldwide.

I moved to Vancouver over 20 years ago to lead and take a company called Medsearch Medical, public and international. I then went into business development for the entire sector by reengineering LifeSciences BC (it used to be the old BC Biotech). From there, we envisaged the Centre for Drug Research and Development, which I also had the honour and the pleasure of leading for many years.

Where I am now is the capital investment side of the sector, and I have the pleasure and honour of meeting world-leading scientists and entrepreneurs, and investing in their companies—both, in Canada and all over the world. So, that’s all of it in a nutshell.

Robert: That partly answers the second question: what did you want to be when you grew up?

Karimah: I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. All I knew was that I loved science and that science had to be a part of it. I also wanted to be ‘le chef’ at some point. I wanted to be the boss, but I also did not know what, where and how. I think part of my enabling was the fact that I was open to really anything. I did not go in with a preconceived idea of what I was going to be.

Robert: Tell me something that no one knows about you or that only a few people know about you; something that would surprise us.

Karimah:  I would say that what a lot of the people don’t know about me is that I love the arts almost as much as I love the sciences. I really enjoy art galleries, museums very much since I was a child. I particularly like Japanese art. I’ve liked Japanese art probably since the age of 12, particularly the woodblock prints, the simplicity of them. As a result of that, that is why I am told that I also like the impressionists and cubism. It all seems to be tied together.

Robert: Let’s talk about influences. Everyone has influences in their life. If you were to go back, who were the greatest influences in your life and why were they an influence on you?

Karimah: I want to start out by saying that who you are in your personal life, and in any other aspect of your life, is who you are in your career and in your business. You are not a different person. There may be certain elements that are accentuated in one arena versus another.

I would say that my biggest influences have been people in my family. In the very early days, that would have been my father, an energetic, charismatic, wild and very successful entrepreneur. In my later life, my mother was more of an influence, as she was the balanced, rational and calm counsel. I also had a wonderful uncle who was a lawyer and a barrister. He influenced me enormously in his thoughtfulness and the way in which he was diplomatic in approaching difficult and complicated problems.

I would say most recently, the biggest influence on my life was my son. He taught me the importance of compassion, of caring for others, being forgiving and non-judgemental.

I apply those learnings in my career. It is in the way that I deal with my own staff, and people with whom I deal externally.

Robert: If you could be in the audience for your own eulogy, what would you like people to remember you for? What would you hope they would say?

Karimah: I would hope that they’d say that I was somebody who enabled others to be the best that they could be, to realize their best potential, that I was a loyal and caring with friends and family and that I was there when it mattered. I think that this is more important to me than anything else. That’s what I would like to be remembered by.

Robert: If you could have dinner with 5 famous people, who would you choose and what would you ask them?

My first pick is Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill is highly inspiring – innovative, creative technology whiz who became a great entrepreneur and then a great philanthropist. He became a philanthropist after his wife came into his life. Which makes me want to know her too because she’s obviously had the most positive influence on him. They make a fantastic team.

Another person whom I’ve admired for a very long time and who is a great leader is Angela Merkel. She is this calm, rational voice of reason. As a leader, she has brought Germany to a great place. I have great admiration and many questions for her: what has made her who she is, and what were her critical factors and key influences throughout her life?

Also, Greta Thunberg. We need to understand what the young folk are thinking. They are the future, and what always amazes me is that in all of those consultations that we have around policy and so forth, we leave out fully engaging the young people. I understand her care for the environment and the climate, and we should have been thinking those things when we were young. Beyond that, what is the future like for the youth?

The other 2 individuals are in a completely different category. It’s Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. I’m an Ismaili Muslim myself, and I have great respect and value for all faiths and spirituality. I would really like to understand from those two great people—and I’m sure we have more things in common than differences when you look at all the different faiths, and how that embeds in modern life and moving forward in the future.

Robert: As a person who is investing in the life sciences sector, what are the things that you look for in companies?

Karimah: You know, we say the science drives everything. You’ve got to have world-class science that is disruptive and game-changing in addressing important, unmet medical needs. That’s a given. And I think most investors and established VC would look for things like that. Still, it’s not only great science and disruptive science. It’s also the people and the team that are important for us. When we do our due diligence, this is highly critical. Before we sign an NDA, we will want to know very well who the leadership is, the chief scientific team, the chief scientific officer, the CEO and so forth.

We are agnostic to the therapeutic areas. We realized that there is a new generation of technologies and converging technologies coming together (EI, AI and devices for example, big data, genomics coming into play with biotech). All of this is going to change, so we have to be open-minded in how we look at the next generation of technologies and their impact.

Robert: Since January and the World Health Organization’s declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic, the life sciences industry has been in the spotlight. How do you think the life science industry can take advantage of this without falling back into obscurity after the vaccine has arrived?

I hope we all learn about the power of the collective. It isn’t about industry working in isolation; government working in isolation on policy and medical facilities working in silos, rather it’s about industry coming together. It is mind blowing if you think about how in working together and in less than 12 months, we have a vaccine that recently went out to Canadians. I hope the industry and government don’t forget how this strong public and private partnership was critical to success and to optimizing and preventing wastage.

The second thing is how we come together so fast and why we were able to develop a vaccine so quickly is because we have invested in science, we invested in the talent, and to a certain degree the infrastructure that was in place. All of these things can’t happen overnight.

What we need to remember post Covid-19 is that ongoing and robust continual investment in the life science ecosystem, as a whole, is critical. We should invest in the infrastructure, the people, the talent, the fundamental education that’s required for creativity, the capital and an enabling environment to anchor and grow wonderful companies so that we are ready for the next pandemic, the next crisis.

Robert: In your answer, you’ve talked about educating and training the next generation of scientists and talent in the world, what do we need to do in Canada to ensure that we are training the best talent in the world, but also attracting and keeping the best talent in the world?

Karimah: The retaining part is really important. You’ve hit the nail on the head there.  It all starts with providing strong fundamentals and creating a pipeline of talent. This starts in our schools, where we need to have a strong K-12 system. Although Canada is still one of the top countries in the world when it comes to science education, we need to rethink, reenergize and modernize our K to 12 curriculum to make sure we are ready to respond to what’s coming at us, and that’s the technology that’s growing exponentially and faster than our brain power and we need to think ahead.

We also have to continue to invest in our universities and basic research. We currently have 3 universities among the top 30 in the world, 15 are in the top 300 but we’ve got to keep investing in creativity and innovation.

We need to invest in the innovation infrastructure, in catalytic programs by incentivizing companies to do R&D. Still, those have to be modernized and scaled up. On a national scale, you have to make sure that we have an environment that attracts global capital and inward investment as well, so that it’s a combined Canadian and foreign capital that’s building these companies and allowing these companies to stay in. Additionally, we not only need to attract capital, but also talent to want to come here, innovate and stay in Canada.

One example I can give you that’s been really successful throughout history is the Sanofi one which used to be Connaugt Laboratories. It had a huge history of innovation. When they got acquired, they stayed here (in Canada) because the expertise was here, the talent was here. This is the headquarter for the global company which is now a French company, whereby they have doubled the number of people working there to over 2000 people and are still driving innovation, as well as creating IP.

Robert: How do you think you’re creating change, and what motivates you to do that?

I’ve been a champion of the life sciences since I can remember. I actively weigh in on policy, both in Canada, and internationally. I participate in forums discussing policies, the value of science and the need to invest in evidence-based, science-driven solutions. Most of our solutions will come from good science and not science without ethics.

I have been doing this for a long time. And now, I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to invest in great science, great companies, great people and entrepreneurs. I not only invest in the monetary aspect, but also in my time to help actively guide. I like to take pride in mentoring the next generation of leaders in science.

Last notes

Karimah:

You often hear people talking about STEM, but what about the humanities?

It’s not just about science. The humanities and the arts are equally important. You need diversity in all things.

I’m a big believer in diversity, inclusivity and equity and that they are equally important in our thought process and in what we learn and what we teach.

Those are not soft skills. Those are critical fundamental human skills that teach us how to interact with other people, how to negotiate, how to do business and how to communicate properly and effectively to the public, policymakers and with each other. Without that, we wouldn’t succeed in this fast-paced technology driven world. I think the liberal arts and the humanities play a very important part in bringing in the next generation of technologies and companies so that the future will have great scientists working with wonderful mathematicians and engineers, as well as artists, designers and philosophers. It’s going to be complete integration and convergence.

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