Location: Baltimore, MD/Tarrytown, NY
Overview: Profectus is a clinical-stage biotechnology company pioneering a major evolutionary step in the design and development of preventive and therapeutic vaccines.
Goal: To develop and commercialize safe and highly effective vaccines that can be used to treat and prevent viral diseases
Number of Employees: 27
Pipeline: The Profectus discovery engine is rapidly creating a pipeline of differentiated new vaccines. On the leading edge of development are:
- A biodefense vaccine franchise for the Ebola and Marburg viruses that has received a total of $37.4 million from U.S. federal agencies, including DOD, HHS, and the NIH, and
- A new GeneVax® prime/VesiculoVax™ boost therapeutic HIV vaccine that is the NIH is using in the clinic as part of the HIV “Cure Agenda.”
Funding: Profectus BioSciences has raised more than $120 million, including $20 million in private equity financing and more than $100 million in grants and contracts from NIAID, BARDA, DOD/JVAP and non-governmental organizations.
Q&A with Jeff Meshulam
Before joining Profectus, you were Director of Corporate Development at the Institute of Human Virology (IHV – partnership between the State of Maryland, the City of Baltimore, the University System of Maryland), how did that position prepare you for the role of COO and then President of Profectus?
Profectus was and is unique. I had known and worked with Bob Gallo since 1976. When he left the National Cancer Institute, the governor of Maryland, the University of Maryland, the mayor of Baltimore, and the University of Maryland Medical Center joined together to create an opportunity that would keep Bob in the state. They created IHV to offer him one foot in academia and one in industry (through commercialization opportunities).
I was fortunate enough to be involved from the beginning. I helped get business operations at IHV off the ground and had the opportunity to lead the way for spinning out a business, i.e. Profectus BioSciences.
I had run two biotechs before, but this gave me an inside view of academia and an understanding of university and state jargon, as well as university rules. I was close to the technologies and knew what we needed to do to attract partnerships and capital.
How has Profectus grown over the past nine years since you joined? How has this led to your growth as a business professional?
When we first spun out, we partnered an HIV vaccine candidate first developed at the IHV with Wyeth Vaccines. As an early-stage startup, we needed validation through a large pharma partnership for investors to consider us. We were fortunate that our vaccine was novel enough to draw attention from a major pharma vaccine player. This gave us an opportunity to partner vaccine development with both academia and big pharma.
In 2008 when Pfizer courted Wyeth (leading to an acquisition), our vaccine program was terminated. I then approached one of my Wyeth contacts and said, “Let’s talk to Wyeth senior management about taking the entire group and its $26 million in NIAID contracts out of Wyeth.” We were able to transfer the federal contracts from Wyeth to Profectus and we also brought senior people from Pfizer to Profectus. Instantly we became a small company with vaccine development people who had big pharma training and experience.
Recently Profectus received funding for the research and development of vaccines to fight Ebola and other viruses. What can you tell us about the challenges and successes of corporate fundraising?
Attracting venture money for us has been difficult – we’ve had one long-time venture capital (VC) funder, but not others. The technologies we transferred out of Wyeth were unproven and we have been in disease areas that haven’t always attracted VC dollars. Now that we have some human clinical results, we are finally drawing interest from the VC world.
The bottom line is that a business is a business. You have to spend carefully on R&D. While we’ve had Ebola funding from the U.S. govt since 2008, the federal government is even more supportive now; it’s a different game because of the epidemic.
Ebola is under an incredibly intense spotlight right now. From your perspective as a biotech/vaccine business leader, what do you feel is most important for people to understand about the virus and how we may make strides in its prevention and/or treatment?
The world has lost its way a bit when it comes to infectious disease. We are one world. We are one plane ride away from everyone else. Diseases that aren’t within our borders today can be here tomorrow. We have to look out for the world as a whole – look out for each other. Ebola is drawing attention to how we need to focus on emerging diseases as a global community.
While the Ebola program in your pipeline may be getting the most attention right now, what do you want readers to know about your overall platform and other vaccines in development?
Profectus still has a strong focus on HIV in both treatment and prevention – we’ve conducted seven clinical trials to date in HIV. Our next lead program is focused on the Chikungunya virus – this is emerging very quickly: 11 cases of mosquito transmission have been documented in Florida and virus-carrying mosquitos have been isolated in Texas. Additionally, the mosquitos that carry the Chikungunya virus have now been observed in southern California. Chikungunya is running wild in the Caribbean. We have a vaccine ready to go into clinical development. We are very focused on Chikungunya.
All in all, as small as we are, we have a very well developed pipeline.
What does it mean for Profectus to have been spun out from a university-based institution (the Institute for Human Virology)? How does it impact your business strategy now?
It was a bit challenging at first to be a part of a university-based organization, but I learned and I’m very glad I did it. I have a lot more patience after having worked in a university setting. The university versus company mindset is completely different. At Profectus, we interact with a lot of universities and I understand what they are doing and why. This gives me a better opportunity/perspective from which to negotiate.
What does it mean to you personally to be part of the Baltimore/Maryland biotech community? In your opinion, what are the benefits for the company of being located in Baltimore?
Moving here from Western New York was interesting… The medical institutions there weren’t as good at creating companies as they are here in Maryland. Here, we are physically close to the FDA and the NIH, close to the biopharma corridor in NJ/NY/PA. Major funders are located here. I can see everyone I need to see in a day and still be home at night.
In addition, we have ongoing relationships with UM Baltimore and College Park. From the State of Maryland, we’ve had MIPs grants, and we’ve also had a TEDCO grant. Also, bwtech (at UM Baltimore County) was a great place for us to grow when we were a new startup in that it has a strong incubator environment with flexible laboratory and office space.
What drives you to face each day in the office?
It’s seeing our science come to fruition and being confident that we can do something to impact real suffering. Ebola is what HIV was 25 years ago. It is creating a lot of the same situations that HIV did (e.g., high numbers of deaths, orphaned children) – and even more quickly.
We expect to be in clinical trials with our Ebola vaccine by June. Armed with strong non-human primate data and the quick movement by funding agencies – and being taken seriously – motivates us and allows us to believe we really can make a difference.
We are united to move this as quickly as possible. We’re going seven days a week, 24 hours a day and the government is right there doing it with us. It doesn’t stop when I go home—and I don’t want it to. We’re one world, we cross time zones. People call in the middle of the night with an idea.
We know what our priorities are and try to keep them on the front burner daily, no matter what happens.
What advice do you have for a first-time biotech/vaccine company leader?
- You won’t get a “no” if you don’t ask, and you certainly won’t get a “yes.” I’ll ask anybody anything. Persistence pays off.
- You never know where someone’s going to be tomorrow. You never know how things are going to change. You can’t take things personally.
- Be persistent. Deal with the highs and the lows.
- Aim to make friends all over the world. We are one society – but then we aren’t—we need to be sensitive to other cultures; to be accepting of their traditions and understand how to work within other countries and cultures.
- Don’t take things for granted; listen more.
- Let people know when you have a problem; they will help you.
- Know the person you are talking to as a person, not just for what they do. I can never stress this enough…. Pick up a phone, go see someone, don’t be an e-mail junky! Words on a screen never can tell the full story. How words are said, the tone, body language and eye contact say as much if not more than words can. I fear this is being lost in the digital world. My wife has a very good way of grounding me with one word: “TONE!”
To learn more about Profectus BioSciences, visit www.profectusbiosciences.net.