Founders Readers - Ep 42 - Dr Rob Coleman of Codagenix
The Founders Keepers podcast, podded
The Founders Readers podnotes are not a transcript, but accompany the weekly podcast detailing key insights from that exact conversation
Whether you’re too short on time to listen to the full episode or just prefer written content, you can find it here 👇
This week, we’re speaking with Dr Rob Coleman about his company, Codagenix: A clinical-stage biotech company developing vaccine products against influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, dengue virus, and many others…
💬 Quote from the pod:
“The selection of the appropriate investor that you, that not just willing to write a check but actually sort of gets the sort of mission of the company is actually very vital. Because when you do stumble, they're not just gonna disappear or figure out how to, you know, triage or get some of their money back, but rather we'll help you solve the problems, willing to provide additional capital to see you through a tougher period”
🔑 Key insights from the episode:
On the birth of Codagenix: Rob claims that the core technology underpinning the success of Codgaenix “was actually my thesis… thesis work published in Science” and the continuation of their success was dependent on the expertise of their founding team, including Dr. Eckard Wimmer at Stony Brook University - as Rob claims, “a godfather of synthetic biology”. Rob outlines that Codagenix is fundamentally a “synthetic biology company…(with) a platform for vaccine development that really came out of Eckard’s lab and my thesis work.”
On changing roles: Rob claims to be “both custodian and CEO” when the company was founded, and as it has grown to a current team of 28 people, his role is now more managerial and less scientific.
On what Codagenix does differently with vaccine development: “I think because of the pandemic, everyone thinks they're an expert vaccinologist right now”, Rob claims, but that he visualises that the first-generation covid-19 vaccines as “platforms” to manipulate and develop other vaccines from and build on the success of other approaches using “Cogens”: “Traditional live vaccines were made by completely random genetic change. The scientist literally randomly mutated the measles virus, hoping it would become a safe and effective vaccine… Cogens can solve these two problems using synthetic biology”.
On mail-ordering a virus, and being scrappy: Rob’s co-founder, Eckard, was the first person to synthesize a virus from small pieces of DNA as part of their work, with Rob claiming that he “literally ordered poliovirus through the mail. He ordered a hundred nucleotide long pieces of DNA, stitched them all together, put 'em in a test tube and poof, out came the fully replicating poliovirus”. From this, they were able to further develop the algorithm that Codagenix uses to “sequence… and design a virus however we see fit...now we've rationally designed a live attenuated vaccine that can't grow in human cells”. In this way, they have also developed “a next generation approach to make the first class of vaccines that can actually be safe and really sort of the bedrock of vaccinology from the beginning”.
On working with the World Health Organization: Codagenix recently collaborated with the WHO on a project piloted in India to create an intranasal covid-19 vaccine with easy storage requirements that could also provide mucosal immunity to recipients: “It's probably in the last placebo controlled vaccine trial for covid that's occurring where we're looking essentially for efficacy versus placebo in a very expansive phase three”. To date, they have dosed around 10,000 individuals as part of this work.
On racing to the vaccine “end” with Pfizer: Rob claims that the advent of covid-19 meant that the Codagenix team was “all hands on deck” and that as part of the vaccines race, “We were only about five months behind Pfizer when they started their phase one and when we had permission from, from the UK MHRA to start dosing in London. So for us, that was already a great achievement”. The limits of being a comparatively smaller company aside, however, the impact of covid-19 on Codagenix’s other programs meant that “there just wasn't interest” and “there was a natural slowdown in some of our other very exciting programs like our intranasal RSV and our Universal Flu Program.. but we've been able to revive those and they weren't completely put in the freezer.”
On vaccine fatigue: “I think it's fair for me to say that there's a bit of fatigue with the injectable vaccines…people are just getting a little bit tired of getting their boosters. I think they're a little bit tired of the virus.” Poignantly, Rob addresses that “…people are being vaccinated, are still getting ill”, which has influenced a lot of their company mission and direction in coming to the market with differentiated products such as intranasal vaccines “that can provide broader immunity and maybe slow down the rate of transmission that there may be a re renewed interest, especially in advancer during the next wave.”
On convincing investors to give them money: Rob states that investors in the covid-19 space still express uncertainty about exactly what the market will look like in the near future, and indeed how regulators will operate in the space - “The regulators are still sorting what they wanna do with regards to how we'll have a seasonal vaccine and what the market will look like and what the surrogate endpoint may be, or requirements to make a seasonal vaccine”. As such, diversifying to ensure that there is investment interest in their other programs such as oncology and RSV - “Those are very tangible” - where “we have a solution there that that others may not.”
On diversifying investor risk: Rob also claims that Codagenix were historically criticised for having too many programs, but recognises that “ the script has flipped” given the failure of companies with binary programs in the biotech industry seeing “a massive loss…For the investors, for the insiders, we've been very fiscally responsible and we've built a very diverse pipeline that will have multiple inflection points over the next 12, 24 months, where it's not all the proverbial eggs in the covid basket”, in turn diversifying the risk for their investors.
On what’s next for the business: Rob cites that owing to the “bad RSV season…there's actually an urgent need for a vaccine in particular for the six month and two year old population”, which is Codagenix’s next target with a fast track designation to support this development and the data necessary.
On a “typical day” in the business: Rob claims that his day typically starts with early calls to clients and potential partners, followed by calls or in-person meetings with the company’s preclinical vaccines team as part of a data review - others days may involve travel, and “some days I'll be only talking to lawyers and accountants, which is like my least favorite activity… It's all fun though.”
On some of the keys to his success: Working in Codagenix is Rob’s ”first job out of PhD” and the success of which he credits to his team but also to “long-term committed investors who are focused on the science understand that biotech takes a long time… there are long timelines in vaccine development”.
Location: Farmingdale, New York
IPO status: Private
Industry: Biotechnology Research
Market size: USD $
Employees: 11-50 employees
Funding stage: Series B
Total funding to date: USD $25 million
A clinical-stage biotech company that designs and develops several vaccine candidates in tandem owing to a with a rational vaccine design platform aimed at infectious diseases and cancer.
Their algorithm and pipeline allows for identifying the genetic sequence of a given wild-type virus to developing a viable candidate vaccine or therapeutic within weeks—and faster, if needed, as new outbreak strains are identified.
Codagenix have also developed vaccines for agriculture and companion animals with the aim of “strengthening our food chain, make pets healthier and lower our global reliance on antibiotics”.
Technology: Their proprietary vaccine platform which develops “codon deoptimized live vaccine candidates” aims to overcome the drawbacks encountered in traditional live attenuated vaccine development, delivering all the benefits of live vaccines on short timelines and with unparalleled genetic stability.
🏙 Company tagline:
“Engineering viruses to transform global health”
👉 Find out more about Codagenix:
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