When National University of Singapore’s (NUS) alumnus Dr Poh Weijie first arrived at Johns Hopkins University for postgraduate studies in 2010 at the age of 27, he made a statement which stunned his American peers.
“I told everyone that I wanted to achieve two things,” the 34-year-old biologist recounted. “Firstly, I want to cure cancer and secondly, I want to start my own biotechnology company.”
His proclamation was met with skeptical laughter. Nobody took his desire to cure cancer seriously. Further, biotechnology start-ups were few and far between in Baltimore’s academia-focused research environment. Success stories are even rarer – Weijie estimates about one in a hundred companies survives the journey to reach profitability.
Seven years on, Weijie has co-founded PathoVax and his company is close to producing a new vaccine to end cervical cancer by stopping all cancer-causing variants of the human papillomavirus (HPV) – a virus responsible for killing close to 270,000 women worldwide every year.
“Current HPV vaccines are only effective against a portion of high-risk subtypes,” he explained. “That means after spending US$2 billion each year on HPV vaccination, there’s still a 10 to 15 per cent chance of getting cancer, so vaccinated women still need to go for Pap screenings.”
These screenings cost the United States US$6 billion a year – money that could be saved if PathoVax proves successful in producing its revolutionary RGVax vaccine, which protects against the array of deadly cancers caused by HPV infection.
This represents Weijie’s achievement of his biotechnology dream – an ambition which first began while he was pursuing a degree in the sciences.
As an undergraduate at the NUS Faculty of Science, Weijie worked as a researcher at A*STAR as part of the university’s UROPS (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme in Science) programme. Little did he know then that his UROPS research on liver cancer would ignite a passion that would set him on his current career trajectory.
“This research project on liver cancer was my first exposure to a cancer-causing virus,” he said. “The cost of drugs for liver cancer can be more than S$10,000 a month, all just so you can extend your life for just three to four months.
“But I learnt that about 5 per cent of all cancers are actually caused by a virus. If you can prevent the (viral) infection, you prevent the cancer, so it would make more sense to develop a vaccine that prevents infection instead.”
He hoped to make an impact on the world with a vaccine, and found out how while studying abroad as part of the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme. During his exchange semester at the University of Pennsylvania, he was afforded the opportunity to intern at Vector BioLabs, one of Philadelphia's fastest-growing biotech startups. The experience proved to be an eye-opener and caused Weijie to question the value of his work.
“If what I’m doing in the lab doesn’t get translated into tangible results or solutions for society, then what’s the point? What is the legacy?” he asked himself.
From then on, the founding of PathoVax became a matter of time as Weijie switched his lab coat for a business suit. However, the journey from laboratory researcher to bio-entrepreneur was tough for Weijie and his PathoVax’s co-founder, Dr Joshua Wong.
“Credibility was a big issue for us,” he recalled. “Even Johns Hopkins didn’t take us seriously because we were just two postgrads with no PhDs.”
For many months, Weijie made no headway in his search for investors but was finally rewarded when a potential investor asked Weijie and his team to pitch their vaccine.
“I literally ran to the professor’s office following the invitation to pitch (the vaccine). He told me to get my co-founder Joshua into the room,” he said with a laugh, “The three of us then put together a presentation in about half an hour.”
Nothing came out of that meeting, but it was the catalyst for the birth of PathoVax.
“If you don’t keep asking, you will never know,” he said. Looking back, Weijie credits the University Scholars Programme (USP) at NUS – an undergraduate academic programme which focuses on strengthening students’ core academic and professional skills – for helping him cultivate this spirit of persistence which served him so well in his search for investors.
The exposure that NUS provided Weijie also helped him broaden his horizons. “You get a sense that the university makes an effort to open doors,” he said.
Today, PathoVax has raised more than US$1.2 million in external financing, and human trials are due to start within the next two years. If the vaccine proves viable, Weijie believes the company could be worth US$300 million by 2020. Impressive, considering he received his doctorate only two years ago.
Weijie merely laughed when asked how he feels about potentially becoming a millionaire. After all, for him, it has never been about the money.
“We started the company because we wanted our vaccine to go into every clinic and to benefit society. And it is that goal which gets me out of bed every morning.”