An Ames, Iowa-based startup is applying cutting edge technologies from human health care to develop vaccines to fight animal disease.
Genvax Technologies was founded in 2021 by vaccine industry veterans and serial entrepreneurs Joel Harris and Dr. Hank Harris to bring advances in self-amplifying mRNA (saRNA) vaccine production to animal health. The co-founders successfully created, grew and sold Harrisvaccines to Merck Animal Health in 2015.
“Our goal is to bring advances in human health care and vaccine technology back to animal health,” said Joel Harris, co-founder and CEO of Genvax Technologies. “About 70 percent of diseases are zoonotic, which means they can pass between humans and animals. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, African Swine Fever and avian influenza, we need a multitude of tools to prepare for and fight against diseases as they break out and evolve.”
Proprietary saRNA platform
The company’s proprietary saRNA platform allows for rapid development of herd or flock-specific vaccines matched 100% to the variant strain circulating in an animal-production operation. By inserting a specific transgene or “gene of interest” (GOI) matched to the variant strain into the platform, the saRNA can generate an antibody response without requiring the whole pathogen.
“The technology allows us to customize a vaccine specifically to an infectious agent, so as something is emerging or changing, we can update the candidate vaccines,” said Harris.
The self-amplifying mRNA approach to vaccines is also beneficial to animal health applications because it requires a smaller dose to achieve the same level of efficacy, allowing the treatment of a larger number of animals at lower cost. It also allows the customization and manufacture of the vaccine without using the actual virus, relying on biochemistry instead to develop and produce the tailored vaccines.
The company has completed several proof of concept studies in pigs and has received grant funding from the USDA-Agricultural Research Services Plum Island Animal Disease Center (USDA-ARS-PIADC) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) to develop a saRNA vaccine for African Swine Fever virus. Genvax has also received a USDA SBIR grant for development of a vaccine against swine influenza.
Harris noted that Genvax has made initial submissions to USDA for product approvals, which is a two-to-three-year process toward commercialization.
“It is very early stage, but we feel confident about the ability to bring these vaccines to market,” he said. “As we demonstrated at Harrisvaccines, there is still a significant unmet need for tools to combat a number of animal health diseases.”
Valuable startup connections and resources in Iowa
Harris noted that one advantage for the startup company is its location in the ISU Research Park in Ames, Iowa.
“Having the both the ISU Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, (which does more than 90 percent of diagnostics in the swine industry) and the USDA division that regulates vaccines in animals within 10 minutes of our facility is a tremendous resource,” he said, also noting that three of the four largest animal health companies in the world (Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Zoetis) have a presence in Ames, and Elanco has locations an hour away in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
“Since the founding of Harrisvaccines in 2006, the startup ecosystem in the state has grown significantly with support from John Pappajohn centers, Ag Startup Engine, and other resources that provide a systematic approach for starting and growing businesses,” he said. “What hasn’t changed is Iowa State’s support of innovation and the growth of companies, resources and opportunities in the ISU Research Park.
Funding opportunities in animal health
A series seed funding round that Genvax closed in August 2022 show ed the support of the animal health industry and others in the value chain for the company’s work. The $6.5 million round was led by United Animal Health with participation from Johnsonville Ventures, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Summit Agricultural Group and Ag Startup Engine. This investor coalition represents animal health, nutrition, feed, meat packers and consumer products in the fight against existing and emerging threats to the food supply chain.
“There is a lot of investor excitement in human health, but animal health is just as critical and there has been a significant lack of venture capital funding in animal health biotech startups,” said Harris. “We were looking for a group of investors who truly understood the value of protecting the pork industry and food supply from African Swine Fever, from the farmers who grow the corn to feed pigs all the way to food companies that sell pork products to consumers. Forming this investor group has created a unique strategic partnership where those who could be impacted by a disease are being proactive by investing in a potential solution.”
Published March 2023.