Don Francis, a pioneer in the field of HIV/AIDS research, had a long history as a pediatrician and an employee of the CDC before he joined Genentech to develop an AIDS vaccine. He realized that the only way to truly combat AIDS was to develop a vaccine. He chose Genentech because it was the world leader on vaccines at that time, but he became disappointed when the development was not going anywhere and decided to start his own company.
Francis talks about how the NIH and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York are also doing AIDS vaccine research. With the help of his foundation, Gates envisions establishing a network of 6-10 AIDS vaccine development centers that would be both competitive and collaborative in their mission to develop a vaccine.
Francis urges inspiring entrepreneurs to follow their passion. He comments on how difficult it is to follow a social cause in a society based on capitalism. The Bay Area is unique in its climate of venture capitalism and risk-seizing attitude.
The scary thing about HIV, says Francis, is the numerous variations around the world. Still, there is no scientific reason that it would not be possible to cover all the strains in a single vaccine; it would just be more expensive to create such a vaccine, he adds.
Neither private investors nor the government was willing to make the necessary investment in the vaccine, says Francis. Therefore, Francis and his team had to look elsewhere for funding. The formation of the Gates Foundation has provided the desired alternative.
Francis explains there are IP issues associated with forming the new venture, but since they are working for the less-developed world the licenses were given free of charge.
Francis talks about how after 9/11, the government became interested in vaccines. Vaxgen shifted to making a small pox vaccine and an anthrax vaccine and has been very successful in these pursuits. Unfortunately, AIDS was not named as an immediate concern and was but on the back burner. Due to the unwillingness of both the government and private businesses to provide funding, Francis has now decided that the AIDS vaccine cannot be developed in the private sector and is founding a non-profit foundation to pursue the development of the vaccine for less developed parts of the world.
Genentech and Vaxgen have spent a total of 20 years and $300 million on developing the vaccine, says Francis, but there is still a long way to go. Francis discusses some of the difficulties they have faced along the way.
The major market for the AIDS vaccine is in the developing world, says Francis, but there is significant demand in the United States with 40,000 new cases a year. There are a lot of unknowns in the business climate in the United States affecting the profitability of a vaccine. It is difficult to encourage investment when a blockbuster drugs would have a much higher rate of return, he adds.