How Two Former IT Industry Professionals Found their Calling as Gene Therapy CEOs
By Chris Frew | November 22, 2023
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In most cases, the prerequisites for the CEO of a gene therapy company would probably include a PhD, MD, MBA, or possibly someone who rose through the ranks of a commercial biopharma organization who knows the inner workings of the industry landscape and the ins and outs of the drug development process. Not many people would anticipate that having a prior career as an IT professional or IT industry executive would lead someone to achieving success as a biotech industry CEO; especially in the complicated field of gene therapy.
However, Jeff Galvin and Terry Pirovolakis are two CEOs and founders who are breaking the mold.
Jeff Galvin is a former tech industry executive who made a name for himself in the personal computer revolution in Silicon Valley. Starting his career in the 80’s at companies like Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computers before becoming a successful entrepreneur and investor in the late 90’s and 2000’s. Fast forward to today and Galvin is CEO of American Gene Technologies (AGT) which he founded in 2008, and the recent spin-out, Addimmune, a clinical-stage gene therapy company that is advancing a promising HIV Cure into phase two trials.
Terry Pirovolakis spent the past 25 years in the telecom and tech industry in roles such as a Telecom Engineer to a Solutions Architect at companies like Accenture and ScotiaBank. Pirovolakis’ journey into gene therapy came by personal necessity in order to find a cure for his son’s neurodegenerative disorder which started him on a path of discovery and purpose, starting the Cure SPG50 Foundation and more recently founding Elpida Therapeutics which he started in 2023. His mission is not only to save his son, but to also change the way that rare diseases are treated as a whole.
We asked Terry what it was like to jump into this business with no prior background and what he learned from the experience.
“Venturing into the gene therapy business without prior experience was akin to moving through your house in the dark – having a sense of the general direction but consistently encountering obstacles,” shared Pirovolakis. “Yet, going through the steep learning curve served as the catalyst for leadership development, where each challenge forged resourcefulness and turned something that was difficult into a challenge that needed to be accomplished!”
Here are their stories.
Jeff Galvin: Exiting Retirement to Usher in the Human Computer Revolution
Galvin graduated with a BA degree in economics from Harvard in 1981 where he found an early love for computers. He took that passion to Silicon Valley to start his career as a software engineer for HP, and then as an International Product Marketing Manager for Apple at the start of the microcomputer revolution. He then went on to serve as a founder and executive in numerous Silicon Valley startups. His entrepreneurial ventures saw notable success, with several companies either going public or being acquired by publicly traded entities. With his success, Galvin found himself retired at age 40, spending his time as a real estate and angel investor.
Galvin shared this reflection about how his previous career in IT prepared him for the journey he has had at AGT.
“I don’t think I would have ended up on this path were it not for my 20+ year career in computers, software, and IT. After completing my degree in economics from Harvard in 1981, I spent most of the next 20+ years working in Silicon Valley, as the future of computers, software, IT, internet, and apps were being developed. Over three decades, I was able to be a part of bringing my childhood visions to life, creating, and selling the technologies that dramatically altered the way people, and even whole societies, were able to function. Whether it was my early days at Apple or the series of startup companies that followed, I witnessed first-hand how innovation swiftly transformed societies. That experience directly enabled what I have been able to achieve in cell and gene therapy, because I saw the same transformative potential in the underlying technology. The potential to use gene and cell therapy to address monogenic diseases (disorders caused by the inheritance of single gene mutations) and even create opportunities to develop potential functional cures for chronic diseases and cancers.”
Galvin credits a meeting with NIH scientist Roscoe Brady, PhD where he learned about viral vectors as his inspiration for founding American Gene Technologies. From that early conversation, Galvin saw the similarities between gene therapy and the software revolution. Gene therapy and viral vectors provided the “code” and “biological software” to rewrite cells, which he refers to as the “human computers” of the human body.
“Moore’s Law” now applies to drug development. Instead of zeroes and ones… A-C-G-T is the new frontier of programming to develop real-world medical solutions. With AGT, and now Addimmune, Galvin hopes to be able to apply gene and cell therapy approaches in a targeted, safe, effective manner to help develop solutions to thousands of formerly untreatable diseases.
Since 2008 Galvin has been on this gene therapy journey with AGT and the past few years have provided great progress and hope for their mission. Galvin has led AGT through a successful Phase 1 clinical trial for their lead program, an HIV Cure gene therapy. As a result of this success, AGT spun out their HIV platform and assets to create Addimmune; a dedicated company that has plans to go public with 10X Capital to complete the clinical trials with the goal of commercializing the HIV Cure product.
If Addimmune continues to see success, Galvin will have validated his early vision for gene therapy with a cure for a prevalent disease that impacts millions of people around the world. It will also force market disruption in traditional biopharma, care delivery, insurance, and government.
Galvin has shown that not having a PhD in Biology and coming from an outside industry such as tech, can actually be an asset in this new field of gene therapy that is forcing a break from traditional norms and showing that creativity cures.
Terry Pirovolakis: A Father’s Love for His Son Turns Him into Gene Therapy Industry Disruptor
The journey began with Terry Pirovolakis’ son, Michael, a young boy who lived in Canada. As Michael grew, his parents noticed delays in his developmental progress which began to get worse with time. After an arduous effort by the family, Michael was finally diagnosed with Spastic Paraplegia 50 (SPG50), a rare neurodegenerative disorder that affects only about 80 people worldwide.
Doctors told the Pirovolakis family that there was nothing they could do, but they refused to accept that.
Pirovolakis and his family started the Cure SPG50 Foundation to better organize with world-leading scientists, labs, and hospitals to make a Gene Therapy for SPG50. Traveling around the world to raise support, SPG50 Foundation was able to raise over $4.5M from tens of thousands of donors to begin advancing a therapy.
Terry Pirovolakis, an IT professional, sought help from top gene therapy experts, including Dr. Steven Gray at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Charles River Labs in Maryland, and Viralgen. The goal was to develop a gene therapy for Michael before his condition worsened. A collaborative effort involving scientists, life science companies, and the community ensued.
Charles River stepped up when Pirovolakis sought approval for a first-in-human trial from Health Canada and the FDA in 2021. Despite preclinical roadblocks, Pirovolakis and the Charles River team were able to complete the necessary studies to obtain safety results and on December 30, 2021, Health Canada approved the dosing of Michael.
After a long and challenging journey, Michael received the potentially life-saving gene therapy on March 24, 2022, just three years after the start of the endeavor. Other children with SPG50 have also received the gene therapy, and more are awaiting treatment.
In May 2023 Pirovolakis co-founded Elpida Therapeutics as a social purpose corporation with a mission to develop gene therapies for patient populations too small to attract traditional biopharmaceutical companies. Launched with about $20 million in cash and in-kind contributions they are focused on programs that were deprioritized or that did not receive investment to advance, but which have excellent data to build on. The company’s lead experimental therapy is Melpida for SPG50, and it is working to build an initial pipeline of five similarly situated pre-clinical CNS gene therapy programs.
In May the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium (BGTC) announced that they would be helping to advance two of Elpida’s neurological programs for SPG50 and CMT4J. A partnership with Viralgen Vector Core and Elpida Therapeutics to manufacture gene therapy medicines for anticipated Spastic Paraplegia 50 (SPG50) and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 4J (CMT4J) clinical trials was also announced this year.
If successful, Elpida Therapeutics will play a vital role in advancing gene therapies, and bring the dream of these treatments into reality on a global scale for many underserved patient populations.
In an interview with Global Genes, Pirovolakis discussed how he was able to achieve such rapid success, against all odds and in an industry he had no formal background in.
“Honestly, throughout my life and my career, I’ve done very challenging and difficult work building things that people didn’t think were possible. I was trained for this task to try to save my son by doing all these very complex things that again, people thought were not possible. And on top of that, we had a lot of luck and a lot of prayers along the way because a lot of this journey is around safety and animals that may or may not work out, and manufacturing runs that run perfectly and a whole bunch of other things that just have to be—the sun and the moon have to align basically for you to get it right. And we just happened to get it right, especially considering that instead of doing everything we did in series, we did everything in parallel. So in other words, instead of spending five or six years and four and a half million dollars, we did it in three years or just under three years and four and a half million dollars. So we were very fortunate that this thing just happened to work out.”
Beyond Michael’s story, victories continue to be celebrated around the world, and more needs to be done.
Jeff and Terry are truly breaking the mold and proving that they can build successful companies through passion, vision, creativity, and their strong leadership.
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Over the past 11 years, Chris has grown BioBuzz into a respected brand that is recognized for its community building, networking events and news stories about the local biotech industry. In addition, he runs a Recruiting and Marketing Agency that helps companies attract top talent through a blended model that combines employer branding and marketing services together with a high powered recruiting solution.