HBN Interviews: From Johns Hopkins to PathoVax – Joshua Wang and Weijie Poh

At the intersection of research and medicine is the need for ventures that can develop and commercialize technologies for the Biotech Sphere. Start-ups are a major buzz now and even more so, start-ups run by recent graduates. Our team member and Hopkins alumnus, Lawrence Jones conducted an interview of Joshua Wang and Weijie Poh, CSO and CEO of PathoVax respectively. in May 2015.
  1. Which division of the University did you all graduate from?

In 2015, We both graduated from the Graduate Program in Pathobiology of the Department of Pathology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  We were actually classmates who joined the program in 2010 also!

  1. Please describe your current position(s) and your roles in Pathovax. 

Weijie is currently the acting CEO of PathoVax. He is primarily responsible for overall strategy, fund raising, investor relations and networking. He also oversees the day to day operations of the company specifically in Boston, MA.  Joshua is currently the acting CSO of PathoVax LLC, he is responsible for the research and development of PathoVax’s technology as well as the day to day operations including required general administration of the company in Baltimore, MD.

Joshua_Wang_Weijie_Poh_HBNY/N (Left Joshua Wang, Right Weijie Poh)

  1. How has your JHU training prepared you for the path you have chosen?

The translational nature of the PathoBiology program whereby the focus is bringing significant research ideas, innovations and technology from the “bench” to “bedside” was extremely importantly in cultivating our perspective in solving critical unmet needs in the healthcare market place. The open-ness and encouragement of pursuing endeavors beyond the norm of academia was also a factor. Most importantly, many faculty members in the PathoBiology PhD program, have previously worked with industry and thus there was a lot of exposure and we could develop an understanding what industry was interested in. We would also add that we were perhaps at the right place and right time, as when we decided to embark on bringing our technology forward sometime in 2014, JHU at the same time, was focused on moving towards creating a more innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem. Grassroot endeavors such as Hopkins Biotech Network and Innovation Factory (then runned by Elizabeth Galbut) as well as cross-over events between JHU Carey business school, Homewood and JHMI- e.g. JHU entrepreneurship bootcamp, was also critical in the early days to help us meet and network with individuals who encouraged and promoted the entrepreneurial spirit.

  1. Why did HPV research top your list for creating and  developing the nascent Human Papillomavirus (HPV) prophylactic vaccine technology RGVax?

Applying to JHU-the PathoBiology program, and to work on solving medical problems of high critical unmet needs was a key desire in both of us. We chose HPV because of both Josh and his mentor Professor Richard Roden expertise. The laboratory was already working on solving the recognized limitations of HPV vaccines for quite some time.

The central thesis to the HPV vaccine issue was that despite boasting efficacy data of 85-90% against cervical cancer case, the vaccine was wrapped up in controversial politics and ethical issues, resulting in people not using it as widely as it should (current census is about 30% uptake rate).  At the heart of this, is a technical issue based on current HPV vaccine technology platform that requires one particle per HPV type to target each individual strain. This resulted in the selection of particular HPV types to target. Since the most prevalent HPV types were sexually transmitted, and were responsible for cervical cancer, these types were chosen, but this in turn led to the evoking of unexpected moral judgments around sexual behavior.

We believed that one way forward to address such limitations is to provide complete protection against ALL kinds of HPVs, not just the sexually transmitted types. By using an already proven HPV platform that has been shown to be safe and efficacious, and displaying our conserved vaccine technology on this platform, and further proving that our vaccine was able to target at 27 HPV types (both sexual and non-sexual types), we believed our RGVax technology will address these recognized social concerns stigmatizing current HPV vaccines.

  1. How important has mentorship been for you team in the beginning, now, and the future?

We cannot stress the importance of this. Given how Biotech is really about having the right relevant experience, it is important to have a ‘coachability’ trait as an entrepreneur, and acknowledge that mentorship is required.

We have been blessed to get mentors who were once key opinion leaders on HPV vaccine research (Dr Reinhard Kirnbauer, an original co-inventor of current HPV vaccines as well as RGVax) as well as vaccine business veterens who had previously worked either at small companies that scaled and got subsequently sold to large pharmaceutical companies (Eric Richman and Sol Langerman who was at MedImmune) , or individuals who headed the large pharma themselves (Roger Pomerantz). Having both high level scientific and business insights was extremely critical in helping us continuously formulate good business strategy.

We also want to give a special shout out to people at Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures who have been a source of constant support. Firstly, Dr Dave Greenwald who acted as a personal mentor to us. Many people can boast of starting a company during their PhD, but few can truly say they successfully exited such as Dr Greenwald. Having gone through the process of essentially starting up to exited, his insights were exceptional. We also are grateful to Dr Chuck Montague and Dr Albine Martin who helped us with our Maryland Innovation Innitiative Phase 1 grant, and for other JHTV directors and key stakeholders such as Bria Stansky, Jorge Aquino, Megan Wahler, Kassim Ahmad and Mark Vanderzyl for helping us throughout this process by introducing us to people around Maryland and for help at JHTV FastForward.

What was a key and pivotal step in getting Pathovax to this stage (scientifically and financially) where you are?

There were several key pivotal steps:
Federal & state funding. In 2014, recognizing the broad spectrum protection of RGVax, the technology was awarded a generous non-dilutive multi-million dollar grant by the NCI to accelerate our vaccine towards phase 1 clinical trials by funding manufacturing , toxicology and IND-support work. Hence, as a start-up we already had a runway to overcome the proverbial biotech “valley of death”. Our value proposition was really that any funding coming forward beyond this was really used for business-development value creation endeavors rather than the well understood risky R&D efforts. In 2015, with the help of Dr Albine Martin, being able to get the MII Phase 1 initiative was a key step in further proving our vaccine’s value. These non-dilutive funding were critical validation points that showed key agencies at the levels of state and federal recognized the value of our technology, and that we had something promising. (A big validation for early investors)

Securing the exclusive RGVax license. Without having the license, you essentially own nothing, and investors will basically not invest. Being able to secure the license to the technology helped us secured our latest round of funding ($350K).

Mentorship from various agencies. While we were fortunate to have had support from JHTV FastForward and TEDCO in Maryland. Weijie also made great gains in Boston, with mentorship support from both the Harvard Venture Incubation Program and MassConnect (A biotech mentorship program spearheaded by MassBio).

Another key pivotal moment for PathoVax was getting into OneStart 2016. OneStart is the world’s largest and most competitive life sciences and healthcare startup accelerator program. It was founded in 2012 in collaboration between Oxbridge Biotech Round Table and SR One, the healthcare venture capital arm of GlaxoSmithKline. The OneStart program also boasts a strong partner network consisting of numerous mentors from accomplished firms or institutions that lead the life sciences industry. This includes C-suite executives from biotech, pharma and Venture Capital. Our discussions and meetings with mentors from the OS program really helped us further develop our business strategy and clinical development program, which will be critical for our next round of funding whereby we are seeking 5M.

  1. If any of our readers reading are interested in creating a biotech company do you have any preliminary suggestions?

It is important to first ask if there is a critical unmet need, and how to validate that need.

If the reader is still based in Hopkins, there are actually a lot of resources now available to help in this evaluation. JHTV has a mini I-Corps program which PathoVax found very useful during our early days while formulating our value, business strategy, and who was our true customer. The biotech bootcamp for entrepreneurs co-organized by Carey Business School was also very helpful. There are also student level grass root organizations such as Medical Entrepreneurship Perspectivs (MEP) or JHU Graduate Consulting Club (helpful for frameworks and business thinking) which individuals can join to help formulate ideas.

Even if the reader is not in Hopkins, there are several similar programs in other institutions and even start-up networks to join to begin the process. Entrepreneurship at its core is a very self-driven process, hence at some time, the individual will require self-motivation to move ahead.

  1. What do you consider is fundamentally different about the approach to HPV vaccine development a decade ago to what Pathovax offers?

The recognized limitation of HPV vaccines being not broadly protective is fundamentally a technology problem. This incomplete protection has resulted in unexpected social stigma and economic consequences- low uptake rates, high costs, social stigma. Back then, it was okay because providing some protection is better than nothing.

However, it is recognized that this is not enough. Recently, President Obama has introduce his plans for a “moonshot” effort to cure and prevent cancer. Perhaps the most prolific of these efforts is to increase HPV vaccination rates, which has been backed by all 69 NCI-funded major research institutions. However, the recognized limitations remain. The factors responsible for the low U.S. rates include resistance among anti-vaccination groups, but more importantly, a “misunderstanding” that vaccination might promote sexual activity and a reluctance of pediatricians to discuss prevention of a sexually transmitted virus for children.

At PathoVax, we fundamentally believe our technology addresses these issues. We truly believe cancer prevention should and can be comprehensive (in the case for HPV), and our technology can provide complete protection against all cervical cancer causing HPVs (we already showed this in published studies). Beyond that, the ability to target non-sexual HPVs, allows the potential to also side-step social stigma and allow the opportunity to promote HPV vaccination as a vaccine for general public health.

  1. Currently, Charm City (Baltimore, MD) is your home base. What are your plans for expansion of your research efforts? Hiring scientist? Support Staff? 

Thanks to securing the exclusive license and being able to close our pre-seed round shortly after, we are now intending to become non-virtual. We are in the process of looking for lab space, and the next FastForward HQ at 1812 Ashland is of considerable interest.

Independent Lab space is essential as we continue to build upon insights from our MII and OneStart mentorship program to accelerate RGVax towards clinical testing.

That includes hiring consultants to devise a proper regulatory path and clinical trial strategy, as well as primary market research as we reach out to clinical trial collaborators. We will also be developing a unique set of assays to be used in conjunction with clinical trials to collect the immunological efficacy endpoints Intellectual protection is the lifetime for biotechs, so we will be filing new IPs from ongoing research to beef up our patent portfolio and the lab space gives us opportunities to pursue other innovative applications of the RGVax platform. We intend to keep the collaborations also going on with Dr Roden.

  1. Johns Hopkins has traditionally been a leader in medical innovation, what is your perspective of the future of JHU entrepreneurial biotech efforts and innovation and short as the next 48 months?

Our answers in the previous questions have constantly praised the efforts of JHU and JHTV since President Daniel’s declaration. We believe with this new vision and budding ecosystem will yield more exciting things to come. Just recently also, there was a joint initiative spear-headed by MedImmune and the key stakeholders around the MD,DC and Virginia region to elevate this region as the “BioHealth Capital” region. We think this is a promising sign and are excited to see what other new innitiatives and efforts will be done to continue to build up this community and ecosystem.

We hope you learned a thing or two from this interview. Don’t be afraid to contact the PathoVax team. They can be your mentor as you plan to start up your own biotech venture.

Joshua: joshua.wang.weiyuan@gmail.com

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