Dr. Anne S. De Groot is the CEO and chief science officer of Providence-based vaccinology and immunology company EpiVax Inc., which last month celebrated its 25th anniversary.
PBN: What prompted you to launch EpiVax in 1998, and what was your original vision for the company?
DE GROOT: I was a faculty member at Brown University, where I had developed tools for classifying vaccine antigens according to their potential for generating an immune response in humans. This skill turned out to be very much in demand, and I began to generate income for my laboratory (the TB/HIV Research Lab).
After experimenting with pricing, I decided that the commercial potential of the tools was sufficient to spin out a company. I want to credit Michael Lysaght, former Brown University faculty member, biomedical engineer and visionary, who helped found the Slater Biotechnology Center, with having encouraged me to spin out a company from my lab.
Over the past 25 years, EpiVax has become a privately held, globally recognized company in the field of computational vaccinology and immunology.
PBN: What are some of the standout advancements EpiVax has made since that time?
DE GROOT: I’m happy to say that I work with a group of creative individuals who are also highly focused on translational research. Over the last 25 years, with my business partner Bill Martin and our team, we have developed computational tools that design vaccines (iVAX), improve biologics (ISPRI), modulate immune response (Tregitope) and predict the efficacy of existing vaccines against outbreak strains of pathogens (EpiCC). We seem to invent something new every three to five years or so, so it has been a very fun and innovative run.
PBN: How would you characterize Rhode Island’s biotech sector in the early days of EpiVax, and how has it evolved over the years?
DE GROOT: The biotech sector in Rhode Island has no shortage of brilliant minds, which contrasts sharply with the science-phobic mindset of most – but not all – Rhode Island legislators. The inability of policymakers to imagine that any “technology” beyond gaming – which was a historic fiasco – could be worth investing in to improve jobs in the state has been both tragic for jobs in the state and detrimental for the state’s progress.
PBN: What recent or ongoing developments in immunology are the most influential on EpiVax’s work?
DE GROOT: The advent of “checkpoint inhibitors” encouraged our team to spin out a new company that is entirely focused on personalized vaccines for cancer. This new company, EpiVax Therapeutics, has developed a tool called Ancer that turns information about an individual person’s own cancer genome into a vaccine for that person. I could not be more excited about this company, which I believe will revolutionize cancer therapy.
PBN: What would you like to see EpiVax in the next five to 10 years?
DE GROOT: I anticipate that EpiVax will continue to be at the forefront of vaccine and biologics research, but with a new generation of leaders at the helm of the company. I look forward to continuing to assist the company as it expands and grows, continuing on its mission of improving human health everywhere.
Jacquelyn Voghel is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Voghel@PBN.com.