Founded in 2009, Western Canadian family-owned pharmaceutical manufacturer Alberta Veterinary Laboratories manufactures and provides efficacious and cost-effective animal health products to thousands of farmers, vets, and pet owners across Canada.
CEO Lionel Gibbs has 35 years of Animal Health industry experience, including working internationally. The majority of his career was spent working with Schering-Plough Animal Health and Vetoquinol. He is now the CEO of both Alberta Veterinary Laboratories (AVL) and Solvet, having been in the role for a year. Solvet develops products by listening to customers, and produces them in Canada. All products are tested in Canada so they’re suitable for the Canadian climate. Mr Gibbs spoke with us recently about the formation of the business, the company’s expanding Research & Development arm, and the global expansion plans that are helping AVL support Canada’s food producers and consumers.
Expanding on research ideas
“Alberta Veterinary Laboratories is a privately owned company, Western Canadian based and family-owned,” Mr Gibbs explains. “It was founded by a couple by the name of Merle and Barb Olsen. They have two sons that also work within the business.”
The couple started the company based on the desire to expand on research ideas and put them into real-world practice. Having worked in academia at University of Calgary for many years, Merle and Barb came across many great ideas that were researched but never established for the consumer market.
“They wanted to change this, and decided to use it to build their brand, based on research. It was founded in 2009, and built on ‘innovation by request’. So, filling unmet needs of farmers and veterinarians on products that they require that they can’t have access to, or other big companies haven’t provided, or just brand new ideas.”
Based on its research and development activity, the company has several patents in place across a number of jurisdictions, which are being marketed worldwide. In addition, AVL distributes products for other pharmaceutical companies in Canada, doing so in the form of the Solvet company.
“The business really has evolved quickly. We have our own manufacturing site – it’s two years old now – in southeast Calgary. We now have 85 employees – sales, marketing, manufacturing, scientists, and biochemists. We focus on two areas: large animal, and companion animal business, and our annual turnover is $20m.”
The business started in the west of Canada, but has since evolved into a company serving the entire country. As a Canadian business, it is able to keep profits in the country so they can be used to invest in other novel products for Canadian livestock producers.
“We also have an expanding Research & Development arm that’s attached to Solvet. It’s called Chinook Quality Research. That’s a big part of how it’s evolved – research, adding people, adding manufacturing, and also expanding into the companion animal zone.”
Caring for cattle
The company has 40 products that it distributes both domestically and internationally, into countries such as Australia and New Zealand. In addition, there are another 25 products in distribution, a number likely to rise to 36 products in the next two years.
“The key focus that we have is animal welfare. Pain management, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, anything to make life easier for those animals. We also have anti-parasiticides, pour ons, and phosphorus bolus as a welfare approach for downer cows on the dairy side.”
The company has developed a branded approach to reflect this focus called ‘I Care for Cattle’. The program was designed to communicate the human/cattle bond that exists in food animal production to consumers.
“We also have ‘I Care For Dogs’, ‘I Care For Cats’, and ‘I Care For Horses’,” Mr Gibbs adds. “This marketing campaign aims to show that the company is concerned with how animals are raised in our food chain.”
AVL’s Tech Service Veterinarians are experienced practitioners with very close relationships with the end user, ensuring the team provides a practical approach to the business. Products must provide a ROI for Canadian livestock producers.
Though large pharmaceuticals have a significant share of the industry, they tend to be more global in their approach, investing a lot of money in anti-parasitic products for dogs and cats. AVL fills the space as a national provider to the much smaller Canadian market.
“Some of these niche products that the vets need or have had in the past are disappearing. So we fill a need forgotten by larger companies. We’re very nimble and able to make decisions and develop products quickly. That’s something that I think is a big difference for us. Decisions are made at a local level rather than hierarchical or bureaucratic.”
Being a Canadian company creates an agility that allows a better response to the needs of the domestic livestock industry. As the big pharmaceuticals focus on big ticket products, AVL turns to the grass roots to find out what consumers need, researching and developing those products at a low cost.
“We’ll hit over $30m in 2023,” Mr Gibbs explains. “We’ve had significant growth in the last couple of years – 48% growth last year, and we’re expanding into global markets. Because animal welfare is becoming such a big focus internationally, we have a couple of patented products for specific procedures that are sought after in many jurisdictions.”
This process involves engaging with foreign governments as well as big pharmaceutical companies that want to add these products to their portfolio. The company’s expansion involves deals in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, South America, and the European Union.
“We are looking at manufacturing opportunities with some Australian companies as well as some US companies – manufacturing products here and exporting them into those jurisdictions as a CMO – and we’re in conversations with government agencies, because governments are trying hard to make sure their producers are providing food that is managed in a very welfare-driven approach.”
AVL is one of a very few companies that manufacture pharmaceuticals in Canada, meaning the government is beginning to pay attention to these processes to make sure the country’s food-producing animals are protected to ensure domestic food security.
“We’re the ones that provide the drugs and the opportunity for those producers to deliver that, and if we run into challenges with imports from other areas, and we can’t manufacture in Canada, we know what happens after that.”
The company’s evolving business model now includes ‘distribution in’ products, helping to ensure Canadian producers have access to products manufactured outside of Canada that they may not have access to otherwise.
The interest in animal welfare coming from Canada and worldwide has put the company in a great position, allowing it to create a lot of jobs. It is also looking into expanding into sterile manufacturing, which would make it the first to do so in Western Canada. It is an exciting period of growth for the company.
Priding itself on being a company built for and by Canadians, AVL is playing a huge part in supporting the country’s producers and consumers, using Canadian scientists to develop unique therapies. Find out more about Alberta Veterinary Laboratories and Solvet by www.solvet.ca.