Listen to this article
Some of life’s most significant meetings are serendipitous. So it was for Livio Valenti. He was working in Cambodia with the UN when he met a professor from Tufts University, Boston who was developing ways of using the protein in silk for medical applications.
When Mr Valenti subsequently took up his place at Harvard’s Kennedy school to study public policy, he caught up with the professors conducting the silk research at nearby Tufts’ biomedical engineering school – David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto are leaders in the field.
Events snowballed when Mr Valenti then met fellow students in a Harvard Business School class called “Commercializing Science”. They drew up a business plan to develop a range of vaccine products that could potentially save thousands of lives. Mr Valenti is now vice-president of policy and strategy for Vaxess, the company they created.
Many vaccines are sensitive to temperature and must be stored either frozen or at a temperature of between 2C and 8C.
This presents three problems, says Michael Schrader, who graduated with a Harvard MBA in 2012 and is now chief executive of Vaxess.
“One out of every five people in the world fails to receive basic vaccines,” he says. This can be for political or financial reasons, but it can also be down to logistics. Cost is the second problem, especially the cost of the ‘last mile’ for vaccines that need to be kept cool.
And third, there is the problem of spoiled vaccines. Not only are the vaccines rendered ineffective because of problems with storage, it is also difficult for those administering them to know which doses are spoiled.
Between 14 per cent and 20 per cent of global immunisation costs come from the need to keep vaccines cold. With the total global vaccine market worth $20bn, developing vaccines that are temperature-tolerant could save billions of dollars.
Silk contains a protein and when a solution of this protein is added to a vaccine, the latter becomes stable at higher temperatures – room temperature or above – and can remain thermostable for extended periods, allowing it to be transported without the need for refrigeration. The technology can work with existing vaccines, such as measles, mumps and rubella, or with those still in development.
How the company was developed
All four of the original founders of Vaxess – the name comes from the company’s strategy to improve vaccine access – have now graduated and taken up positions in the company. Scientist Kathryn Kosuda is vice-president of R&D and lawyer Patrick Ho is vice-president of licensing and regulatory. They are now hiring staff.
Vaxess says that the Tufts professors are happy for the company to represent the technology and develop links with pharmaceuticals companies and NGOs such as the Gates Foundation.
Vaxess has won three business-plan competitions, including the 2013 HBS Alumni New Venture Competition. This gave the company $160,000 in funding. In May Vaxess raised $3.75m in first-round financing, a deal that will support the company for the next two years.
The group will push ahead with the development of thermostable vaccines while working on the business model and looking for additional funding.
There is now a consensus among vaccine producers that they need to get the vaccines to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, says Mr Schrader.
“There is a new paradigm in global vaccines.”
Nonetheless, it will take five to six years to get the thermostable vaccines to market.