Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Mei Mei Hu isn’t just looking to develop a new generation of vaccines. As the CEO of Vaxxinity, a clinical-stage biotech, Hu and her team have a broader mission to democratize health by targeting chronic diseases that impact large numbers of patients.
“At Vaxxinity we want to bring the efficiency of vaccines to chronic diseases — basically a third biologic revolution. Imagine if we could vaccinate against heart disease and stroke,” she says. “Imagine if we could vaccinate against Alzheimer’s. And these vaccines would be accessible to everyone. That’s our North Star.”
For that to happen, Hu says, the vaccine space needs new options.
“The problem is that vaccines are difficult to make and difficult to take, and as a result, less than 1% of the world is taking them right now,” she says.
Vaxxinity is banking on a platform that uses synthetic peptides to allow the selective activation of the immune system to develop antibodies against different proteins in the body.
“The concept is very similar to other vaccines,” she says. “The difference is that traditional vaccines will fight against foreign infections. Our vaccines are designed to harness the immune system.”
The company says the idea is to convert the “body into its own natural drug factory stimulating the production of antibodies.”
Currently, Vaxxinity has six vaccines in clinical trials, the most advanced of which are UB-612 for COVID-19 and UB-311 for Alzheimer’s.
Earlier this year, we caught up with the company’s co-founder — and Hu’s husband — Lou Reese to learn more about the company’s history and its approach to vaccine development.
In this edition of the Woman of the Week podcast, Hu talks about her journey as a biotech entrepreneur, taking her company public, being a role model and innovating game-changing science.
“We have our company goals but they’re all driven by the North Star, democratizing health, we question everything and ensure that everything we do is in furtherance of that purpose,” she says.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive. In this episode, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief Emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Mei Mei Hu, CEO, Vaxxinity.
Taren: Mei Mei, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Mei Mei: Well, thank you. It’s great to be here.
Taren: Well, it’s great to have you. In doing a little bit of research, I found out that you before you founded Vaxxinity, you were highly regarded as a consultant at McKinsey where you advised multiple pharma companies on strategic operational organizational issues. So what led you to leave the consultancy and found Vaxxinity?
Mei Mei: Life is interesting. The universe gives you all sorts of challenges along the way. So it’s definitely not a straightforward route. I was very happy as an ex-lawyer and consultant. An opportunity lended itself where the skills I acquired being a consultant really made me suited for the next challenge. And so I took a leave of absence. McKinsey was unbelievably supportive of it. And what turned out to be a couple of months project turned out to be a career on the biotech side which turned out to be the founding of Vaxxinity several years later. So life just kind of meanders and you follow where it takes you.
Taren: I love that it meanders and you follow where it goes. But yet, at the same time, you are carving out a path. There’s no doubt that some of this may have been happenstance but nothing really happens by accident for people who are well-prepared and you are a well-prepared person. So can you talk to me about that grand vision you have for Vaxxinity and what is that vision?
Mei Mei: Absolutely. It’s what I love to talk about most. At Vaxxinity, we have a singular mission which is to democratize health. And that means to be able to provide the efficiency of vaccines to chronic diseases and make it available to everyone. Vaccines as we all know them today, just look at COVID. They revolutionize infectious disease. Prior, over a hundred years ago, maybe 1 in 10 kids made it after year one and almost half died by the time they were 10 and yet vaccines really transformed that. And over the last century, we’ve been able to double our life expectancy because of them. Something called monoclonal antibodies revolutionized medicine for chronic disease. They’re one of the most successful classes of drugs today.
But the problem is that they’re difficult to make and difficult to take. And as a result, less than 1 percent of the world really is on them right now. So what we want to do at Vaxxinity is to bring the efficiency of vaccines to chronic diseases and bring in basically a third biologic revolution. Imagine if you could vaccinate against heart disease and stroke? Imagine if you could vaccinate against Alzheimer’s. And these would be accessible to everyone. That’s what we want to do and that’s our North Star.
Taren: I love that you called it the third biological revolution. So at a time when so many of the big pharma companies were leaving the vaccine business just prior to COVID, because it was hard, there wasn’t a margin there, you set about a goal to jump in to the vaccine market. Some might think that’s just a little bit crazy. So what led you to think that this was the right path to go in?
Mei Mei: So sometimes we take being called crazy, a badge of honor.
Taren: I love that, yes.
Mei Mei: Yeah. People used to say that before the next big invention, the moment before it happens, that person is called crazy. But someone once told me there’s a book about the red ocean and the blue ocean, something like that. You really want to go to places where people aren’t playing. And that’s where oftentimes the next real revolutionary innovation is happening. So you’re absolutely right. Before COVID, people were leaving the vaccine space. They didn’t believe that you can make money off of low margins and it was more like we were taking them for granted. COVID really put it back front and center and said, no, this is the medicine that has allowed us to come to the place where we are today. Where we have longer life expectancy. Where we have over 80 percent of the world having access to these life-saving medicines.
At Vaxxinity, we have this unique technology where we can basically develop vaccines for chronic diseases which if you don’t know yet, there’s not a single vaccine approved right now for a chronic disease. And really, it was driven by technology. Instead of looking at what everyone else is doing, you say, what can my technology enable and where is there a need? And what we saw was this need which is our North Star, and that’s why we pursued it. And so there are trends that are going to come and go and sometimes you’ll be fortunate to be part of the trend and sometimes not but so long as you follow your North Star and do what’s right, you’ll end up in the right spot. It will catch up to you in other words.
Taren: Absolutely. As part of this, you said that 80 percent of the world now has access to vaccines and that’s part of your mission to democratize health. How are you positioning the company to achieve – this is a pretty lofty goal.
Mei Mei: It is. This is nothing to sneeze at. And that’s why I get invigorated every time I wake up. There’s not a better job in the world. So in terms of positioning, I mean, you need good science, first and foremost and that’s the basis of anything that you do in the industry. And so it was basically – the push factor is that the science is something that I have conviction, that we all have conviction at our team that it can do what we want to do. But beyond that, we have to build a great team around it of experienced leaders and people who aren’t afraid to take risks and afraid to go after something that’s completely different. And then you got to raise money. Biotech’s a very capital-intensive industry.
And I think COVID helped accelerate what we’re doing. The focus on vaccines didn’t hurt us. It brought people to be able to reimagine and reappreciate what vaccines did. And so we were able to raise more capital to basically accelerate our mission. But those were the things. You want a great team and you want the resources to be able to help push it forward. But nothing’s going to get done without the right fundamental science and that’s something that we’ve taken and tried to run off of.
Taren: Let’s talk about that science. Can you describe the technology platform and the science that you’re pursuing?
Mei Mei: Yeah. We have a platform that’s synthetic, peptide-based. And the idea of the platform is that we’re able to selectively activate the immune system to develop antibodies against different proteins in our body. The concept is very similar to other vaccines that we take. The difference is that traditional vaccines will fight against foreign infections. So our body’s already very keen to do that. It recognizes a foreign invader and says, wow, okay, let’s put up our defenses and protect ourselves. The challenge is, is that as we get older, chronic diseases are really what’s killing us more and those are often caused by endogenous proteins. So things that our body is producing itself. That just either get mis-produced or mutated and stuff and they end up being toxic to the body.
So what we teach the body to do is to actually produce antibodies to attack those proteins, and we call those self-proteins. So it’s not easy. Conceptually, it’s quite simple and elegant but in order to get that science to work is quite difficult. And so this technology that we’re leveraging has been developed over decades. So it’s not an overnight thing. But we’ve really been able to show it not only through large animals but now on multiple clinical trials.
Taren: What are some of those chronic diseases that you’re targeting? That’s very curious. I’m very curious about that.
Mei Mei: Yeah. So almost any target that can be accessed by monoclonal, we can develop a vaccine to. Doesn’t mean that we will but that’s where the potential of the technology is. And the ones that we are going after are everywhere from brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to migraines, to heart disease and stroke. One of the most interesting things is that heart disease is still the biggest killer in the world today and yet we have medicine that can really prevent it like statins and PCSK9 antibodies, but there’s still a massive unmet need.
And so the idea is, what if I told you that you could vaccinate against heart disease and stroke. That’s revolutionary. So we have the science and the target already, we just have to put them all together in a way that is again, accessible to the masses. That’s where true exponential innovation happens. When you can take something and really get it to be accessible to everyone.
Taren: That’s exciting. You said a minute ago that your technology has been in development for several decades. Not unlike the overnight success of the mRNA vaccine that came out for COVID which also was not an overnight success but decades in the making. So Mei Mei, what makes your platform different from the other mRNA platforms?
Mei Mei: The ways that we’re similar are that we have the same approach. It’s a vaccine approach. Both mRNA and what we do at Vaxxinity basically makes your body into its own antibody factory. mRNA does it by basically penetrating your cell and getting it to code different proteins and thus stimulate immune responses. We take a bit more traditional, gentle approach, but the idea is the same. We want to turn your body into an antibody factory. The big difference is how we target it. mRNA is great for infectious disease. I mean, they’re really rapid in developing these vaccines. But if you’ve ever taken an mRNA vaccine or if you took one for COVID, there’s some side effects. And it’s one thing to tolerate those side effects to stop a global pandemic but it’s another thing to tolerate those flu-like symptoms to battle something like high cholesterol.
So we’re just going after different indications. There’s a place for both. But what we do is, we’re looking for chronic diseases where you need to consistently and over many years, target something like cholesterol or amyloid plaques. And with that, you need to be a little more gentle with the body and much more targeted. So as opposed to just kind of overwhelming the immune system and getting lots of response quickly, we want to be more targeted, more gentle, and we’re targeting what we call self-proteins again. So they’re just different applications. I think mRNA is remarkable in what it's done for COVID. We’re just going after different things. And so we’re more comparable to a monoclonal. We just have a different approach of doing that. We just want to make it cheaper and easier to take than a monoclonal.
Taren: It’s fascinating science. And you mentioned amyloids which is tied to one of your lead products out there for Alzheimer’s. So I think that’s such an interesting category to go into with a vaccine. And if the science proves to be true, this could be a true game-changer. What are you looking at in terms of your Alzheimer’s project? What’s next on your milestones to achieve?
Mei Mei: Absolutely. So Alzheimer’s is so devastating and Alzheimer’s is actually defined by the presence of amyloid plaques post-mortem. So the idea is, if you never get amyloid in the first place, can you ever really develop Alzheimer’s? Just like heart disease is treated right now, a lot by prevention by use of statins, the ultimate idea is, can you give a vaccine to help prevent these toxic proteins before the disease even sets in? That’s the grand vision and that’s where only a vaccine can really be effective. So the idea is, can we get into patients or even healthy individuals early enough with our vaccine to prevent this toxic amyloid from accumulating and from doing damage in the brain, before Alzheimer’s even sets in? So that’s the idea or grand vision for this is, to be the first vaccine to prevent Alzheimer’s worldwide.
The regulatory path is a little different. There’s other amyloid programs in the queue right now and I think there’s going to be two readouts. And so we’re going to be looking at those closely. Right now, we’re slated to run a trial in early Alzheimer’s. So the idea is, just when you’ve been diagnosed to get the vaccine and see if we can slow the progression of the disease. So it’s stepwise and so our next step is really doing early treatment. But ultimately, where we envision and where we want to be and where I think the world needs to be is in ultimately preventing Alzheimer’s before it even starts.
Taren: It’s a fascinating theory and hypothesis. So I will keep my fingers crossed that you are really on to something because as you said, it’s so devastating. And if it can be prevented before it starts, wow, that would be – I mean, huge is not even the right word.
Mei Mei: Yeah. I think it’s also – thankfully, it’s not just me. I also realize that I always like to surround myself with people that are much smarter than me and usually be the least educated in the room. But I think the field is really moving towards that direction and maybe is already there. I think there’s a big belief that these diseases, these neurodegenerative diseases, take decades and they start decades before you see symptoms. And really, the most effective way to attack them is to prevent them. We just need the right technology and frankly someone bold enough to say, we’re going to do that.
Taren: Well, you’re bold enough so I think that’s amazing. So I will absolutely wish you the best of everything as you pursue that line of science because that’s really quite something. As we just finished the first half of the year, can you share with me what are some of your key objectives for the remainder of 2022?
Mei Mei: Yeah. It’s really, we’re heads down on trying to execute on our programs. We have four shots on goal this year. So we have our COVID vaccine that’s in phase 3. We have our Parkinson’s trial that’s up and running right now in EU that’s going to readout the second half of this year. We have our migraine trial that’s going into humans this summer. And we have our vaccine against heart disease and stroke that we’re getting great animal data on and we’re hoping to file for human trials by the end of this year. So really, we just have to keep our heads down and execute and make sure that we’re progressing these programs and we’re letting our hands play out to see how the data unfolds. So far, we’re doing quite well in that respect. But this is a year of execution and showing what the science can really do.
Taren: So you’re busy, wow. You noted earlier before we started to get into our conversation here that you’re opening a lab up in Florida. You want to tell me about this. Is that part of the execution stage?
Mei Mei: Yeah, it’s super exciting. So we have opened a lab in Cape Canaveral right on the Space Coast, so our neighbors are like Blue Origin and SpaceX. But it’s a place where all of our early research is being done. I love the team down there and it’s growing. It’s just a great space to innovate and be all together and to do some of our early science. The move to Florida has been incredible. The state’s been unbelievably supportive. We’re working on a whole bunch of stuff, including potentially even some space vaccines.
Taren: That’s interesting. It’s the next frontier. Space vaccines, I love it. You said this year was execution mode. But as the CEO you also are looking further down the line. So talk to me about what are some of your longer-term goals. Obviously, bringing these vaccines to market. But in doing so, what are some of those challenges that you’re going to face. Is it mostly financing? Is it about the science? Is it about the company culture as you get bigger to execute? Tell me what’s on your mind.
Mei Mei: Oh, all of the above, Taren. I think there’s always priorities. Listen, the science is going to be what the science is, and once you’ve shown proof of concept, it’s all about tweaking and getting it right. So that’s where the execution comes in. I believe in the science. We all have tremendous conviction in the underlying science and we just have to figure out how to be successful on that. But the team is so critical to doing that. And so, it is about company culture of how do you get the ‘get stuff done’ culture of not being afraid to experiment and possibly fail. And it’s surrounding with the expertise of folks who have developed drugs for cholesterol before, who are really ingrained and knowledgeable about Alzheimer’s. We have just an unbelievable slate of scientific advisory board to help also. It is about building an ecosystem that starts with your core team, so I think that is very important.
I’d say good leadership will be spending a very, very healthy chunk of their time really tending and nurturing the team. But then also, to be frank, it is about capital raising. Again, these are very resource-intensive programs. So constantly looking ahead to say okay, what’s the market doing right now? What are the macro influences that we have to be monitoring, capital matters? What are the trends that we have to be on the lookout for, for when we’re going to be raising? So right now, we’re in preparation mode. At least, I’m preparing for the next financing if we need to based on the data. So the team’s focused on execution and we have to be prepared once our catalyst hit to be back on the road. And that’s the reality and it’s okay so long as you know it. You got the expectation set. You’re prepared for it.
Taren: Absolutely. You took the company public not that long ago and running a public company is much different than running a private company. What are some of those lessons you took away from taking the company IPO?
Mei Mei: Well, fourth quarter last year was a total whirlwind. It was a big dance. So we went public November 11th and I had actually my third baby on December 11th. So I was giving birth to two things in a span of a month.
Mei Mei: Super fun.
Taren: Super fun.
Mei Mei: Lots of coordination, you got to check and double check and got to make sure you’re on it. I think being public is super interesting. It’s a different animal. I’m not sure that I ever thought of being public. I’m sure I never thought of being public as a goal. It just became a milestone along our journey to what we’re doing and it’s important. So I think it’s also important to convey to everyone on the team and to your investors, we’re not looking for short-term quarterly hits on price and stuff like that. We’re in here for the long haul. And so what matters to us is, is the company progressing? Are our programs advancing? Are we executing well? Is the science playing out as we expect? And those are the things to keep an eye on because once you’re in the public eye, it’s easy to be distracted. And so I think focus is even more important now and following your North Star is even more important now. I think those are the two things that I’d takeaway.
Taren: Yeah. Focus is so important as you noticed. As you look to what the future holds and you’ve described it quite nicely, you have to see what’s down the pipe. You got to start tracking those trends and how it’s going to impact you and be prepared to pivot if you need to and make those adjustments. I also noted doing some of the research on you is that you’re also a co-founder of an investment and advisory group with active investments in real estate, energy and life sciences. Why get involved with that? You’re pretty busy as it is.
Mei Mei: Yeah. Well, this has been in the making for years even before Vaxxinity. So my husband and I have been working together pretty much straight out of college. Always doing projects. So we’re everything from organic farmers – actually, not even organic just of the land natural farmers out in Hawaii for a while. We got involved in solar and other renewable energy projects. I think we’ve always been impact-driven and it keeps your mind learning about new things. And everything is so cross-functional and cross-industry that the lessons from one can really be taken all over the place. And the people that you meet and the network that you grow, I think life is just intertwined in a large network. Yeah, we keep investments in all sorts of different industries and we share them with other partners. But they do span from real estate to energy and frankly, other biotech companies as well.
Taren: Interesting. And so you’re doing this with your husband, so that’s an interesting dynamic in and of itself.
Mei Mei: Yeah, absolutely.
Taren: Talk about having to learn how to manage conflict resolution, what happens when you disagree? Are the rules written out?
Mei Mei: No, we’re not as formal as having rules. But being in a relationship for over 20 years, you kind of figure it out. So even though some people say, oh, that’s so much more tumultuous. In some ways, you’re like, yeah, but I’m used to it. I know how to eventually resolve it. And if we disagree, we’re used to it. We know how to deal with each other. We’re not going to hold back. We’re not going to hold punches. If anything, you’re more transparent than ever and you really just hash it out. And at the end of the day, you either convince someone or you just move ahead and you agree to disagree but then commit.
Taren: It’s interesting. It’s got to make for some pretty good conversations that we think.
Mei Mei: It’s definitely dynamic.
Taren: I think so. You’ve received quite a number of accolades including being named to TIME's 100 Next list, Fortune 40 under 40 and you remember the Young Global Leaders of World Economic Forum. What do these recognitions mean to you?
Mei Mei: I’m honored by them but I try not to think about them. It’s never felt comfortable in the spotlight but sometimes whatever helps accelerate your mission and drive awareness to it, you embrace. I think before we got on the record of this, we were talking about hearing our own voices and how sometimes we aren’t comfortable with them and so we don’t even listen to what we do afterwards. And it’s a little bit like that. I think there’s always a little bit of, oh, why am I recognized and a little bit of imposter syndrome. So I really try not to think about them but I do whatever I can to help accelerate our overall mission.
So another example is, I’m not personally on social media. But now that it’s becoming a platform, a voice, it’s something that you have to reconsider. It’s not something that I would personally ever want to do but if it’s something that is expected and can help reach and help drive awareness and help accelerate what we’re doing, it has to be on the table. And that’s what you do when – sometimes you make decisions that you normally wouldn’t make but that are for the betterment of what you’re doing.
Taren: You say that you’re very humbled by these, but at the same time, you are seen as a role model in the industry. How does that mantle responsibility lie with you?
Mei Mei: Oh, I don’t know.
Taren: Let’s face it. You’re a biotech entrepreneur. You took a company public. You are smart. You’re looking at a whole new game-changing science. People are looking at you as a role model, especially other women.
Mei Mei: Yeah, it’s in some ways an uncomfortable position but I think for other women and also, I want to say for my kids. You have to think about what you say and do because other people are watching and not because you’re afraid of them judging, but just because you want to send the right message of hope, of positivity, of impact. We tell our kids, don’t worry about rules. The only rule that you have to follow is your heart and I really believe that. If everyone just followed the rules, women wouldn’t be able to vote. We wouldn’t be able to own property. And so you have to stand up for what you think is right and sometimes that’s going against the grain. Again, it’s a work in progress. We’re all works in progress. So I think even that as a role model is okay. You don’t have to be perfect.
Taren: That’s a great way to put it. Yes, you don’t have to be perfect because even when you – it just doesn’t feel authentic. Everybody is flawed. Everybody has those imperfections. Everybody makes mistakes, but you do the best you can and as you said, when you lead with your heart and you try to do the right thing, usually you come out on top.
Mei Mei: Yeah. The other thing I often say or think is, so long as you act with integrity and do your best, you can never really be disappointed with yourself.
Taren: Those are wise words. And speaking of wise words, what are some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Mei Mei: I think I’ve mentioned North Star several times now but it continues to resonate. It’s just, follow your North Star. Things will be complicated, business is complicated, relationships are complicated, and it’s easy to be lost but you just have to follow your North Star and say, okay, what is it going to take to get there and how should I act in this moment that best serves me to get there? And that will give you the conviction to do the right thing. Not necessarily the easy thing or the thing that you expect, but it could be the conviction to do what’s right in that moment. And it’s also the thing that is the key bit of advice or mantra that I try to share with others. We have our company goals but they’re all driven by the North Star, democratizing health. Let’s make sure and question and ensure that everything that we do is in furtherance of that purpose.
Taren: That’s a very good North Star. And as you were talking about the company and setting up that culture, how large is the company now? And how big do you see it getting over the next couple of years?
Mei Mei: Oh, I think we’re a lean-mean team. We’re about 100, so it’s a great sign. I love that start-up growth period where things are just moving all the time. So I think we’re in a good size right now. I don’t know how big we’ll go. We’re actively recruiting for key positions but it’s less about size and just more about getting the right people who are passionate, who are not afraid to go after things in a different way, who are in fact excited by it and aren’t afraid to be half-terrified also because when you’re doing something new and you’re a pioneer, you get the most arrows. So you got to be able to tune that out or at least use it to even fuel your drive further.
Taren: I love that. Yes, when all eyes are on you, you do have to use it – I love that, use it as fuel to keep going because as you said, if you’re following your North Star, then you’re pointed in the right direction and you have your convictions of the science behind you. This has been a fascinating conversation and I so look forward to seeing what’s going to happen next with the company and see your progress as you move forward with the pipeline. But I do have to ask you, what is your wow moment that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you?
Mei Mei: So I’d say it’s not a moment. My life hasn’t been about singular moments. I wish it were that simple. There are always events in life. But if I had to think about a thing that really had a massive impact, it would be having kids. And as pedantic as that sounds, when I had my first kid, it was like, holy cow, this is what unconditional love is. This puts life in a whole different perspective. And when your kids get older and they start asking you questions, you think twice about how you want to answer them. When our oldest son, asked about people seemingly not being treated equal and why is that, that’s when the importance of democratizing health really began to resonate and set in even more.
It’s like there are a lot of people working on Alzheimer’s drugs, there are a lot of people working in heart disease or migraines, but who of those people want to do that for everyone who suffers on the planet? How do we get that, and that makes what you’re doing special and more meaningful. And so, that drove me further to want to set an example for our kids and to leave the world in a better place for our kids. And to show that the things that we say, we do mean and that we don’t just pay lip service to it but we actually act on behalf of it.
So it may sound cheesy but that was a life-altering moment and event. Thankfully, it’s continuing because they’re wonderful in our lives.
Taren: Well, thank you to you and thank you because really, it’s been lovely speaking with you and that’s a lovely story. Thank you for sharing that very personal memory with us. And again, I want to wish you all the best of luck as you pursue some really game-changing science and a business model that can really change the world. So keep our fingers crossed. I know hope is not a strategy but let’s hope for the best here and look forward to seeing what comes next. Thank you for being part of our WoW podcast program.
Mei Mei: Thank you, Taren. It was a great privilege to be here.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.