The measles, says Vaxess CEO Michael Schrader (MBA 2012), is the perfect example of what's wrong with the modern vaccine. Despite the fact that a measles immunization has been available for more than 40 years, there are still several countries around the world where fewer than 50 percent of the children are vaccinated against the virus. And the price of the vaccine is negligible, says Schrader—around 5 or 10 cents. "It's not cost that limits it," he says, but rather infrastructure: Vaccines rely on a complex and costly chain of cold storage to keep them viable, making distribution a daunting process.
That's the problem Vaxess seeks to address. The company is developing a way to store vaccines at room temperature using silk proteins, eliminating the need for refrigerated storage and allowing for wider distribution of immunizations to underserved areas.
The Vaxess story started two years ago in the HBS class Commercializing Science—a course open to students from across the University—which pairs scientific research teams with students looking to help them pursue a market for their discoveries. One of the 17 scientists who presented their work to the students was a Tufts biomedical engineering professor who had discovered a way to employ silk to create stable vaccine storage. Schrader, with a mechanical engineering background and experience in product development, was intrigued, and joined up with three other interested classmates: a post-doctoral chemistry student, a third-year law student, and a Kennedy School student with experience working in the United Nations. "It was the perfect blend of backgrounds," says Schrader.
In 2012, the fledging company won both the HBS Business Plan competition and Harvard's President's Challenge, which provided almost $100,000 in seed funding. "We wouldn't exist without that start-up money," says Schrader, who notes that Vaxess has also relied on the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) for meeting space as well as a network of HBS professors to guide them through everything from payroll to networking.
The high-profile wins, combined with a July 2012 paper that detailed the science behind the technology, attracted attention from the likes of the Economist and National Public Radio. Soon, Schrader no longer had to cold call the pharma companies—they were calling him. "All of a sudden, my job became a whole lot easier," he says.
Though the product is still four or five years of regulatory hurdles away from market by Schrader's estimate, Vaxess has started working with various global health organizations to figure out how to apply its silk stabilization technology to a wide range of vaccines. "Right now, 2.4 million people die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases," says Schrader, who led Vaxess to another win at HBS's 2013 New Venture Competition this spring. Compare that number to the 1.8 million annual global deaths from HIV and the 1.3 million deaths from diabetes, and the scope of the technology's impact becomes evident. "Essentially, there are more people dying from curable diseases than either of these other two global menaces."
Schrader hopes Vaxess can start chipping away at that stat. "Ultimately, our goal is to lower the cost across the globe and make sure that those people who don't have coverage can get coverage. And then I think you're going to see that 2.4 million number start to fall."