5 Questions with Jeff Galvin, CEO and Founder of American Gene Technologies™
“5 Questions With……” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people in the BioHealth Capital Region to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This edition features 5 Questions with Jeff Galvin, CEO and Founder of American Gene Technologies™.
Jeff Galvin is the CEO and Founder of American Gene Technologies™ (AGT). He earned his BA degree in Economics from Harvard in 1981 and has more than 30 years of business and entrepreneurial experience including founder or executive positions at a variety of Silicon Valley startups. Several of his companies were taken public and/or sold to public companies, including one in the medical-technology arena that was sold to Varian, the leading maker of linear accelerators used in cancer therapy. Following his startup experience, he retired to become an Angel Investor in real estate and high tech. He came out of retirement to found and fund AGT after meeting Roscoe Brady at NIH.
1. What was your first job/role in biotech?
My first role in biotech is my current role: Founder and CEO of American Gene Technologies (AGT). I “chanced” into this career after deciding to come out of retirement and having a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Roscoe Brady from the National Institutes of Health that inspired me to start a company to advance gene and cell therapeutics.
After a successful 20 years in computers, software, internet, and IT in Silicon Valley, I looked into my bank account at age 40 and realized I could retire. I expected to work in software, internet, or computers again, but as luck would have it, an intriguing business plan came to me from NIH in 2006. I hopped a plane to the East Coast and, through a lucky stroke, met Dr. Roscoe Brady. Dr. Brady introduced me to viral vectors. The way he described the technology, combined with what I remembered from high school biology, gave me a vision of the future of medicine. He opened my eyes to scientists’ new ability to “crack open” viruses, remove their malicious code (DNA), and add software (DNA) designed to replace broken genes. I realized that we could now harness the power of viruses to update the operating system (DNA) of the human computer (the human cell)!
Dr. Brady was retiring from NIH, so in 2007, I formed AGT to continue Dr. Brady’s research. Dr. Brady retired at NIH (becoming a scientist emeritus due to the remarkable career and successes he had at NIH), and joined AGT as Chief Scientific Advisor to continue to inspire the nascent AGT team.
2. Tell us about AGT, and any projects you want to highlight.
AGT has the highly fulfilling mission of “leveraging gene and cell therapy technologies to reduce suffering and early death from serious human diseases”.
Over the past 12 years, we have developed and patented a vast set of technological innovations in the uses of viral vectors (that apply to all different types of viruses), genetic constructs, processing methods, discoveries, and knowhow, that can be “mixed and matched” to cure a myriad of diseases. We are focused on three lead projects at this time because that is what we can afford to advance towards the clinic in parallel on our current resources. Still, they are huge, important diseases that can contribute significantly to humankind: a cure for HIV which is expected to enter clinical trials this year, a cure for phenylketonuria (PKU) that we hope to submit to IND in the next year, and an amazing immuno-oncology approach that is showing tremendous pre-clinical data for safety and efficacy in animal models clearing human epithelial cancers (breast, prostate, liver, etc.).
I am extremely excited about our progress towards a potential HIV-cure. The pre-clinical data has been highly-convincing that an HIV-cure is possible. NIAID has documented our cell process and product in a recent article in Molecular Therapy (https://bit.ly/3hAt5zb), which has further boosted my confidence that AGT may soon achieve it.
We are now approaching the clinic with a cell product that is demonstrating clearance of HIV that is orders of magnitude higher than anything ever produced before. We are “dotting the final i’s and crossing the final t’s” with the FDA on our IND submission, and we hope to take that program into the clinic in an open label phase 1 human trial this year.
BioBuzz covered our most recent publication on our HIV program. That original article published in Molecular Therapy was co-authored between AGT and NIAID after they repeated and validated our experiments in the NIAID labs. https://biobuzz.io/on-the-road-to-an-hiv-functional-cure-lentivirus-modified-cd4-t-cells-bring-new-hope/.
3. Your education includes a B.S. in Economics from Harvard. How do you believe your education helped to shape your work today.
A background in economics has been very useful in creating a sustainable business, funding, and growth model for the company. It has also helped me to understand the broken, inefficient pharmaceutical market, and to envision and produce a new drug-development model that can leverage the natural benefits and attributes of gene and cell therapy. Combining that with a fresh look at the industry has allowed me to break AGT away from the inertia and standard models of traditional pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
The scientific breakthroughs that we are making at AGT are enhanced because of an alternative funding model that is more patient and flexible, and that allows us to go where the science leads us. The model’s focus on long-term “development efficiency” as opposed to “getting a drug to market” is intended (and looks like it is working so far) so that AGT can contribute to a revolution in the pharmaceutical industry. I anticipate that our platform will become a foundation of 1000’s of blockbuster drugs in the future that will create substantially more value to patients (cures) at easily-justified, reasonable prices (unlike the drug market today). It is hard to see right now, but I think it will be apparent after we achieve first-human-efficacy in our first few drugs. I have worked to focus the company on the building blocks of new drugs instead of specific therapeutics, and the current products arose naturally out of those building blocks. Now we possess those fundamental components to reuse in additional drugs, and we are inventing new building blocks every day that widen the scope of therapeutics and cures that we can develop. All while continually lowering the cost and risk of developing new drug candidates for increasing patient populations.
4. Please talk about the culture at American Gene Technologies and what you’re most excited about for the future of the company.
AGT is a unique place. Every person who works at the company, from the admin staff to the PhDs in the lab, work towards a goal we are passionate about: ending as much human suffering as possible. That energy is palpable in the halls.
We value brains, work ethic, passion, creativity, and teamwork. That value system has brought us tremendous diversity in the team and has created a multi-ethnic workforce that is over 60% women, with seven native spoken languages. The team members at AGT have gravitated to the company through their desire and belief that we can cure diseases with unique technology and collaboration. They are all dedicated, passionate people with creative minds, and we greatly value each other’s contributions.
The most exciting thing happening at AGT in the near term is the beginning of our Phase 1 clinical trial for the HIV cure program. After we prove that drug candidate works, we plan to make a massive expansion of our pipeline and workforce. I know that rapid growth phase is going to be a challenging transition for everyone at AGT, but I hope the fundamental culture of the team will allow us to grow and adapt (and add more great people) the company to scale our model and pipeline up to more therapeutic developments that we have in mind, while maintaining the unique team and environment we have now.
5. If There Was An Olympics For Everyday Activities, What Activity Would You Have A Good Chance At Winning A Medal In and why?
Evangelism. At Harvard, I had the opportunity to teach a course called Natural Sciences 110. The course educated non-science majors (students) on computer science and how computers would likely impact their careers and lives. I taught weekly “sections” to classes of 20 to 30 students, and when the professor was away, I would give the lectures to 1200 students in the class. It was like a Broadway performance. I loved sharing my passion for new technologies that could impact people’s lives for the better. Later, in my years at Apple Computer, I learned that sharing your passion and love for your technology and vision for the future can be called “evangelism”.
I take the spirit I had as the youngest head teaching fellow at Harvard into every speaking engagement I do as the CEO of AGT. I always try to center my talks on bringing an understanding of the power of gene and cell therapy to whatever audience will listen to me, regardless of what level of education or science background they have. I have spoken to audiences of fifth-graders up through PhDs and executives.
When you genuinely believe in something, and you can explain it understandably to others, your passion helps to create an emotional connection between your audience and your journey. Some of them will “get it”, and they will join you to help you bring your vision to reality. You never know when an important person or resource will be attracted to your company and vision, but the more you spread your “story”, the more it happens. It was through this form of evangelism that I gained great employees, patient investors, brilliant scientists, and globally recognized advisors and collaborators to power our shared mission.
12 years as Founder and CEO of AGT has been a marathon of evangelism (and fundraising). Perhaps one day, I will earn a medal for that. 😉
Thank you to Jeff Galvin for participating in the ‘5 Questions with BioBuzz’ series and stay tuned for more interviews with others from across the BioHealth Capital Region.