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How two Hopkins researchers grew their findings into a small-but-mighty vaccine startup

The co-founders of Avidea were creating vaccines before it was cool. Now, their passion for protecting people against the world’s most dangerous diseases continues to propel the Baltimore-based vaccine development company toward success.

Geoffrey Lynn and Andrew Ishizuka discovered their shared enthusiasm for vaccine development while researching vaccines through the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University and Oxford University. The two worked to develop vaccines that fight disease through T cell responses, in contrast with vaccines that produce antibody responses — the main type of vaccine on the market. 

Lynn and Ishizuka were excited by the results of their research, which had created a technology to leverage T cells to create vaccines that could protect against chronic illnesses like hepatitis B or cancer. 

“We were quite excited about the promise of what we had discovered,” Lynn recalled. 

But after sitting in talks with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies interested in licensing the technology, the founders noticed that the companies they were speaking with were only planning to use part of their technology, rather than harness the technology to its fullest potential. 

That’s what led Lynn and Ishizuka to acquire the license themselves, negotiating with Hopkins, NIH and Oxford, and launch their own company, Avidea, in 2016. 

“It was a little bit of a leap of faith that we could pull this off,” Lynn said, remembering how he and Ishizuka had needed to “shake down everyone (they’d) met in (their) entire life” to get the initial funding for the company. “That feeling, once you’ve sold people on a promise, was when the stakes really were kind of high.” 

The following year, the company became a member of Hopkins’ FastForward U incubator program, which provides startups launched by members of the Hopkins community with space and resources. According to Lynn, FastForward U was imperative to the company’s success, as it provided guidance pertaining to legal and financial matters that the two co-founders — scientists, rather than entrepreneurs, by trade — did not otherwise have access to. 

“They were one of the original tenants of our space at 1812 Ashland Avenue,” home to the Johns Hopkins FastForward innovation hub, said Brian Stansky, senior director of FastForward. “It’s been great, seeing them grow as a team in terms of literally the size of the team, the footprint of what they needed, and the growth and the discovery work that they’ve been doing.” 

Since spinning off, Avidea has raised $8 million and grown its team to 14 employees. The company’s business model has also changed slightly; Avidea now focuses more broadly on developing what are referred to as “platform” vaccine technologies, which are skeletons that can be built upon to create a variety of vaccines to combat different diseases. 

Most recently, Avidea was acquired by British vaccine company Vaccitech, which developed the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, in a deal valued at $40 million that the companies announced in mid-December. Avidea will serve as Vaccitech’s U.S. arm and will remain in Maryland (though Lynn said he wasn’t sure where in the state Avidea will move once its time at Hopkins ends at the end of 2022). 

Lynn said the companies are a perfect match — Vaccitech’s team is knowledgeable about T cell vaccines, meaning that they all “speak that same common language,” he said. But the two companies create different types of vaccines — Avidea focuses on synthetic vaccines, while Vaccitech focuses recombinant vaccines — allowing the Maryland company to bring a valuable specialty into its now-parent company. 

“The most exciting thing for us is we now have the capabilities to advance our clinical programs,” Lynn said, adding the Avidea is working towards clinical trials for a vaccine addressing advanced cancers and another addressing an undisclosed autoimmune condition. 

Lynn and Ishizuka are staying on, respectively, as senior vice president of synthetic immunotherapies and senior vice president for translational research, continuing to lead the research and development for Vaccitech’s North American arm. 

“It’s hard to account for how many people it took to build this and get it to where it is, and how many people are going to be needed to get the tech to the next state,” Lynn said. “This is such a huge team effort.”