Based: Cranbury, NJ
CEO: Alan Shaw
The Scoop: There are developers that command respect, and then there are a few you just want to root for. VaxInnate gets kudos on both scores. The Wellcome Trust recently joined MedImmune Ventures and other venture backers to provide a $30 million Series D round that will go to advancing its work. And the developer has raised a total of $95 million on its way to the hoped-for revolution of the vaccine business.
What makes it Fierce: There's nothing like a pandemic to get the world focused on new vaccine development technologies. And VaxInnate has one of the most intriguing new approaches in the lab.
Yale University's Charles Janeway provided some of the original science on toll-like receptors, or TLRs, to create a new platform to develop vaccines that could well be far more effective and vastly cheaper and easier to make than the current jabs in use. Ruslan Medzhitov and Richard Flavell, both of Yale University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, founded the company.
VaxInnate takes flu virus protein antigens--the basic building block in existing vaccines--and combines them with the bacterial protein flagellin, which interacts with toll-like receptors, heightening the potency of the vaccine. In essence, they're the body's policeman and garbage man, explains VaxInnate CEO Alan Shaw, PhD. They pick up pathogens and then chew them up.
By producing the fusion flagellin-antigen in bacteria, they can brew up vast stockpiles in weeks at a significantly reduced cost. Shaw says that their approach could clear the way to letting existing manufacturing centers produce two billion doses in a short period--which would resolve one of the most vexing supply challenges countries face when they go up against a new virus.
Programs for a universal as well as a seasonal influenza vaccine are underway. And like other developers in the vaccine field, VaxInnate is particularly interested in finding a more effective flu jab for seniors, who are often left unprotected by vaccines now in use. The sudden appearance of swine flu proved irresistible to VaxInnate, which quickly launched a new program for H1N1.
But VaxInnate likes to pick and choose its programs carefully.
"We're 52 people," Shaw explained to me recently. "We have to focus on a few things we can accomplish. We can't do everything all at once."
What to look for: A universal vaccine program should deliver clinical data in the spring with a program for seniors wrapping up by the end of the year. But Shaw routinely cautions against over-eager expectations on the development side. An approval could easily take until 2014, making their development time line look a lot like a traditional drug project.
Venture backers: Canaan Partners, CHL Medical Partners, HealthCare Ventures, Oxford Bioscience Partners, MedImmune Ventures and The Wellcome Trust.