In the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, #GAStartup Prime Vector Technologies (PVT) from Tübingen has received funding and support for their safe viral vector platform that enables the fast generation of vaccines. Find out why they chose to focus on Southeast Asia and their biggest learnings from this pandemic.
From left, Dr. Ferdinand Salomon (COO), Dr. Ralf Amann (CEO), and Dr. Melanie Müller (CSO), from Prime Vector Technologies, a #GAstartup in German Accelerator Southeast Asia Class 2020-2 (©️ Prime Vector Technologies)
It’s amazing to witness the power of innovation and how the startup ecosystem around the globe has joined forces during this pandemic. Our current #GAstartup, Prime Vector Technologies (PVT), has recently come into the spotlight after receiving an additional €5 million funding to develop a COVID-19 vaccine from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi).
Our Southeast Asia Class 2020-2 program participants, Dr. Ralf Amann (CEO), and Dr. Ferdinand Salomon (COO) from Prime Vector Technologies, took a short break in their race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine to tell us a bit more about their company and their experiences so far.
What inspired the founding of Prime Vector Technologies? Could you tell us a little bit about the journey thus far?
Ralf: I have spent my entire professional career of more than 10 years on viral vector derived vaccines. In 2012, we moved to the immunology department of the university hospital in Tübingen and my focus switched from vaccines in the field of veterinary diseases to developing cancer vaccines for humans. By 2015 I had built up my own working group in the university hospital, and that’s when Ferdinand (COO) and my other founding partner Melanie (CSO) joined the team. We were always focused on developing the vaccine to get it out to the clinics and build up a company because we saw the huge potential of the vector platform. Our clear unique selling proposition is making a difference in immunogenicity, as compared to other vaccine technologies. Prime Vector Technologies was then officially founded in October 2019.
Ferdinand: First, I wanted to do my Ph.D. thesis in a different European country than Germany, but I came across Ralf’s project group, which had a strong focus on application. It was very attractive to me knowing your research could make a real impact. The potential of the technology came through as well as the intent to commercialize it given the need and high potential of it. Ever since I’ve worked with Ralf and believe that this technology can make a difference. In the past 5 years, we have made significant progress and could show that this platform technology has high flexibility in terms of applications as it can easily be used to make vaccines against various infectious diseases and different cancer indications.
PVT has had quite a good run with receiving EXIST funding and support from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). Most recently, the additional €5 million in funding to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and participation in German Accelerator’s program. Can you tell us more about how this came about?
Ferdinand: We received EXIST funding in July 2018, which would help us fulfill the “Impfkraft” project for 3 years, until mid of 2021. When the coronavirus pandemic started, the EXIST jury already knew about our technology and approached us to write in a new application for further support to develop vaccine candidates and testing it. We submitted the application and received further funding of €1.3 million within just 10 days – this was amazing as normally this would take half a year! It is encouraging to know that the ministry can speed things up if necessary, and we are very happy and honored to subsequently receive additional €5 million funding as well as support from the German Accelerator program. It shows there is trust from the BMWi and the EXIST jury in our technology.
As the world races to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, PVT has produced viable vaccine candidates and is now receiving support from German Accelerator to secure vaccine production partners in Asia. Why Asia?
Ferdinand: We always had Southeast Asia in mind as a highly attractive region, and the support from BMWi led us to German Accelerator’s Southeast Asia program. The Asian region is highly dynamic, and it’s very interesting to see the developments especially in the field of infectious diseases. It has quite a number of developing countries, and we see it as a hotspot with a need for diseases to be tackled quickly and in a cost-efficient manner. PVT’s technology has at least the basis to make much-needed vaccines more affordable in this region as it is less resource-intensive compared to other technologies. I believe it makes us a good fit for Southeast Asian markets.
What are your goals in Southeast Asia and how has your German Accelerator program experience been thus far?
Ferdinand: We definitely want to see results – it is highly important for us to finally see the corona vaccine entering the market and being available to people in need. That is definitely a top goal. We have had constant contact and overwhelming support from BMWi and German Accelerator, who have introduced us to a very strong network in the region. This includes our mentor from German Accelerator, Hanno Elbrӓchter, and potential partners, manufacturers, distributors, and investors. We’re already in talks with organizations interested in long term partnerships with PVT to enable the supply of vaccines in the region. We definitely wouldn’t have been able to enter these markets and establish these completely new networks as fast as we could without German Accelerator’s help.
Ralf: Although finding a COVID-19 vaccine is a current priority for us, as a broader objective we want to build a ‘vaccine alliance’ in Southeast Asia. As Ferdinand said, Southeast Asia is one of the hotspots for next pandemic scenarios and we want to get in touch with Governments or NGOs to discuss opportunities around forming an alliance to develop vaccines for current infectious diseases as well as future pandemics. Southeast Asia is also a hotspot for biotechnology. We also know that the people in Southeast Asia are well-educated and trustworthy. On a personal level, there would be opportunities to build up good, long-term relationships with partners in Southeast Asia. Lastly, as a company, we are trying to form a syndicate of VCs that support us in taking the company to the next level, and that would include finding a Southeast Asian VC or investor in the region.
What have been your biggest learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic – both on a business and on a personal level?
Ferdinand: The pandemic has shown that the world can work together. Globalization is no longer only a word that occurs in textbooks but it is happening to us and especially for me, who entered my professional life just half a year ago. It has accelerated the opportunities to get in touch with many people across the world, and it has been an inspiring and great learning for me. I’ve also learned that a lot of processes can be accelerated. All of a sudden, the world is focused only on one topic, to find a vaccine. This speeds up every process that is connected to it, for example, funding to support this effort was available very quickly. On the other hand, it also means processes that are not connected to producing a vaccine have slowed down.
Ralf: I completely agree. It’s impressive how the entire community is working in a positive way to speed things up, work proactively, and in a very supportive way. It has been a great journey and an inspiration for me as well to learn from our mentor, Hanno, who is a really good match for us as a mentor.
In your eyes, what makes an entrepreneur?
Ferdinand: As an entrepreneur, you have to be convinced of the purpose of why you’re doing it, and you have to be committed to it. When you are convinced of the difference that this effort can make and have a vision of where this will lead you to, you will be able to commit yourself to going the extra mile and making sacrifices in your private life.
Ralf: In addition to that, you have to be open-minded, and be flexible about adjusting your vision. You need to be able to accept that the world moves around you and keep an open mind, even if you have to doubt your business model. Flexibility is one of the biggest challenges, on a scientific, business, and personal level.