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50 Innovative Companies to Watch 2020

Developing high quality and affordable vaccines and biopharmaceuticals to protect people against infectious diseases: SaudiVax

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Globally, significant advancements were made in developing, introducing, and expanding vaccines in the last decade. Many people were vaccinated, and the numbers are much higher than before. This, in turn, has resulted in a significant reduction in deaths called by diseases preventable by vaccines. Furthermore, sophisticated vaccines like rotavirus and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines and pneumococcal conjugate vaccines were introduced globally. In the last decade, we also got to witness the growth in the capabilities of vaccine manufacturers and suppliers. Generally, these manufacturers are more focused on WHO, UN, and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) markets, but now they have pivoted to increasing their product pipeline with better vaccines to focus on other markets.

There is a great, unmet need for vaccines that help protect against infectious diseases in both developed and developing countries. Additionally, there is an opportunity to focus on vaccines that protect against diseases in categories such as travel. Addressing these needs was the inspiration for the creation of SaudiVax. The company was founded in 2016, and it is based in Riyadh. SaudiVax is going through the establishment of a new industry in Saudi Arabia. This is considered a Greenfield topic project that requires the creation of a new ecosystem; therefore, it has been in direct communication with both public and private sectors related to ecosystem development. After a couple of years of consistent group work and planning, SaudiVax announced the establishment of SVBC (Saudi Vaccine and Bioprocessing Centre) located in KAUST (King Abdullah University for Science and Technology) in the western side of Saudi Arabia.

In conversation with Prof. Mazen Hassanain, CEO of SaudiVax

Q. Healthcare and technology go hand-in-hand. Do you use efficient advanced technology to boost your clinical research?

Research, development, and technology advancement are all integral components of optimum healthcare service. It is our belief that these need to go hand in hand. SaudiVax is bringing an opportunity to couple the building of the biotechnology industry with the ongoing transformation of the healthcare services within the Kingdom, thus allowing for a soft transition from traditional healthcare to precision healthcare. SaudiVax plays an important role in establishing the technology and the industry of the biotech business in the Kingdom, supporting the global biotechnology business that is booming internationally and is well established in very few countries. The establishment of this new industry locally will promote R&D linkage to the healthcare industry and disrupt the healthcare services being provided to the citizens and to the visitors of the Kingdom.

Q. It is not easy to simply wave a magic wand and improve drug discovery and release productivity. How do you manage to overcome the complexities of developing a vaccine?

It is well known that vaccine R&D is a complex journey of drug development from discovery to human use. This journey requires multiple integrated ecosystems to be established. SaudiVax has been very keen to develop these ecosystems in the Kingdom, working very closely with the vaccine research unit at King Fahad Medical Research Centre (KFMRC) of King Abdulaziz University, and with the clinical trial unit of King Abdullah International for Medical Research Centre (KAIMRC). KAUST plays a major role in supporting the establishment of the ecosystem led by the Innovation and Economic Development department. KAUST and the Industrial Clusters (IC) are working closely to establish the Saudi BioPark. SaudiVax plays an integral role in aligning these efforts in order to support the vaccine and the biologic industry localization and make it a trademark for the Kingdom in the region.

Q. Vaccine development is not for the faint hearted. Please talk about your highly-qualified personnel, and their contribution in SaudiVax’s success.

From the get-go, SaudiVax has worked very closely to establish its team of experts. We have successfully recruited six main scientists from 6 different universities from Saudi Arabia, named: Dr. Mohammad Alsenaidy, Dr. Anwar Hashem, Dr. Naif Alharbi, Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, Dr. Ahmad Mahmoud, and Dr. Almohannad Alkayyal. SaudiVax is jointly working with established research centers internationally, and has signed multiple R&D agreements with institutes such as NIH, University of Pittsburgh, Baylor College of Medicine, and is looking forward to establishing even further ties with other universities in the near future. Additionally, SaudiVax collaborated successfully with international biotech companies from South Korea, China, Germany, France, Canada, and the US. This allows for knowledge and experience sharing to build a successful collaborative network geared towards building the national vaccine and biologics R&D capacity. It is almost impossible to have all the services available under one roof. Therefore SaudiVax is keen to establish such an ecosystem to be available with its network of partners.

Q. Are you into any philanthropic/ social welfare activities? Please explain.

SaudiVax’s objective is to provide vaccines in an affordable manner for the region. The business of supplying the locoregional countries with the needed vaccines is based on a strong global health interest that supersedes the financial return. Therefore, it is very important to prioritize global health over immediate gains from conducting such business in our region.

Q. What is your contribution in fighting against COVID-19?

SaudiVax has done and is making major efforts in supporting the ongoing COVID19 research and development, and has established collaboration agreements with two biotech companies, a spin-off from the University of Pittsburgh named, Aboundbio and with SONA Nanotechnology. With Aboundbio, SaudiVax is working on developing a new monoclonal antibody that binds and neutralizes SARS COV-2 and so preventing Covid-19 disease, and with SONA Nanotechnology to support the local deployment of a fast diagnostic kit for SARS-CoV-2 virus. Additionally, SaudiVax members have been helping and contributing to the decision-makers within the Kingdom and locally within GCC to help and support in the discussion around COVID-19 vaccine selection. SaudiVax, also as an operator of the SVBC, led by KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology), is engaged in multiple due diligence activities of novel COVID-19 vaccines and antibodies from around the globe for the national security and pandemic preparedness program.

Q. Are there any new services launching anytime soon?

SaudiVax, because of its unique team of experts and technically skilled talents, is working on an animal vaccine development opportunity to support regional animal vaccine development and manufacturing.

Meet the leaders behind the success of SaudiVax

Prof. Mazen Hassanain, King Saud University Professor of Surgery, Canadian College of Surgery Association Fellow with expertise in Transplantation, Immunology, and Oncology, has founded a number of companies in the healthcare and biotechnology sectors. SaudiVax is his most recent startup, which was founded at the end of 2016. Prof. Hassanain was the Director-General for the Saudi Ministry of Health Research Department, and he founded King Saud University vaccine research program.

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Dr. Donald F Gerson is an expert scientist in biologics and vaccine manufacturing with over 35 years in the business. He co-founded multiple biotech and pharmaceutical industries with a long track record of experience in founding and managing multiple major pharmaceutical companies including Celltrion in S. Korea and PnuVax in Canada. He is passionate about research and development work that revolves around supporting vaccine supply for global health.

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Eng Jonas Gerson, a biochemical engineer by training, has over 10 years of experience in biologics and vaccine development and large-scale manufacturing. He has co-founded multiple biopharmaceutical companies including PnuVax and SaudiVax, with a track record in biomanufacturing facility design, process development, engineering work, and business development.

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Mr. Mutaz Hassanain, a co-founder of SaudiVax, is a King Saud University finance graduate with managerial experiences in multiple companies in the Kingdom, currently is the CEO of SNC-ICT, and has a large portfolio of services and expertise in the private sector pertaining to business administration.

“SaudiVax intends to be the premier manufacturer and supplier of vaccines and biopharmaceuticals in KSA, the GCC area and ultimately in the OIC.”