i-lab Resident Spotlight: Vaxess
Cambodia, 2009: An Italian working for the United Nations, Livio Valenti, is looking for ways to support rural farmers to expand their income opportunities. Sericulture, the process of raising silkworms to create silk products, represents a great opportunity. He stumbles on the research of a professor at Tufts University, Fiorenzo Omenetto, who postulates that silk proteins can replace some current ingredients in vaccines. The silk matrix provides greater stability, eliminating the need for cold-chain transport, which would spread vaccines off the grid to places where there is no refrigeration or electricity. “We thought about how to use silk for tackling the most unmet challenges in global health,” said Valenti. “We saw the opportunity of building a profitable business while creating sustainably an important public good: increasing access to health for those who are most in need.”
Cambridge, 2011: Valenti, now a student at the Kennedy School, enters Harvard University’s Commercializing Science course taught by Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Woody Yang of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He meets three other graduate students (HBS EC Michael Schrader, HLS 3L Patrick Ho, Chemistry post-doc Kathryn Kosuda) and together with the Tufts faculty members, they develop Vaxess. In the Commercializing Science course, the team comes up with a very high-level plan of how to bring vaccines using silk-based technology to market.
At the i-lab, they’re diving into the intricate details of that process. Taking a task from the initial plan that was written as simply as “make a partnership with a pharma company” brings up a lot of questions. The answers come step by step.
“It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with, without a doubt,” said Schrader. “When we have bad days, we have a good enough team, we’ll figure it out. It’s a cool feeling.”
Since they took up residency in the i-lab this semester, they’ve expanded on what they learned in class. “We had leveraged Harvard Business School community and felt that we had utilized those resources, and i-lab gave us access to more people with different skill sets that gave us more knowledge than we had gotten previously,” said Schrader. They’ve had office hours with EiRs and legal counsel, and were selected as a finalist in the global health category President’s Challenge. Outside of the i-lab, they’ve been racking up awards, most notably the HBS Business Plan Competition mentored by Professor of the Practice of Management Practice Vicki Sato.
They’re still following the high-level plan made in class, which means it was a good plan, but the Vaxess team hopes to bring their project full circle. Maybe the story ends like this:
Cambodia, 2018: A community health worker unloads cartons of vials from the back of a tuk-tuk, an open-air motorcycle truck. He stores them on shelves in the hot storeroom until the child of a silk farmer comes in to get his first MMR vaccine, when they’re mixed with solvent and administered, no refrigeration necessary.