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The Zealot: Mission Critical

Sometimes the fastest way to get a job done is to start your own company.
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"Is There Death after Sex?" blared a headline in the February 3, 1983, issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The subhead went on to report the dire news: "AIDS began as the 'Gay Plague.' Now it has spread beyond that community and become America's deadliest epidemic."

Anne De Groot was in her last year of medical school at the University of Chicago when B.D. Colen's article about the new "mystery killer" hit the newsstands. The disease was so young it hadn't yet become standard copy in medical journals or part of the medical-school curriculum. "We learned about it from the Journal of the Rolling Stone," De Groot says.

That unorthodox course of study, begun almost 20 years ago, led to what has become a passion for De Groot. Starting in 1986, when she embarked on a fellowship in parasitology and vaccinology at the National Institutes of Health, she's dedicated herself to developing vaccines for AIDS and tuberculosis. She took her research with her to Brown University, in Providence, R.I., where in 1992 she set up a lab partly with earnings from her job as director of an HIV clinic at a women's prison. Then, two years ago, the wheels of academe could no longer keep pace with her vision. De Groot had the money to hire new staff but no place to put them; she needed to bring in supersharp computer "bioinformatics" specialists but on the university's pay scale couldn't attract them; and she wanted to tap into federal funding that's available only to for-profit companies. So she founded a biotech company, EpiVax Inc., to speed things along. "The structure of universities is too inflexible to allow for rapid expansion," says De Groot, 44, who's determined to get her AIDS vaccine into clinical trials by 2002. "In a university it takes you four to six months to hire someone. In a biotech company it takes you one day."

EpiVax, whose 2000 revenues were slated to reach $700,000 (a 700% increase over 1999's figure), is headquartered in a Victorian carriage house bordered on one side by a garden that its three full-time employees refer to as their "conference room." (CEO De Groot has a partner who will own about 15% of the business and also serves as the company's chief information officer; EpiVax's third full-timer works as the director of bioinformatics.) De Groot started the company with $10,000 of her own money and a $75,000 grant from a nonprofit agency in Rhode Island. Since then, the business has generated sufficient sales and garnered enough grants for basic research to stay afloat without going into debt.

EpiVax's revenue model is as iconoclastic as its approach to vaccine development is. The company uses computers to decipher only those pieces of a virus, called epitopes, that stimulate the immune system. It then constructs those epitopes and tests them in the lab. To make money, EpiVax does epitope analysis for vaccine companies on a fee-for-service basis (which generates more than 20% of the company's revenues) and establishes long-term research-and-development partnerships with other vaccine makers (which bring in about 30% of revenues, with the possibility of royalties from new vaccines). "We're keeping on the information-supply side and not the vaccine-supply side," says De Groot. "We're trying to create a new niche -- a bioinformatics vaccine-design niche."

De Groot is currently looking to hire a chief business officer so that she can be freed up to concentrate on epitope consultation and court new customers. She wants to expand the applications of the company's technology into the fields of diagnostics and veterinary-vaccine research. And she's investigating sources of venture capital, with an eye to finding "enlightened investors" who, she says, "share our vision."

De Groot sees the company's AIDS vaccine, which she wants to provide to people on a nonprofit basis, as just the tip of the vaccine-development iceberg. "It's a great model," says De Groot. "If we succeed, we're going to get a lot of other business. Infectious diseases are a growth area."

Thea Singer is an associate editor at Inc.


THE START-UP ISSUE

Part 1: Your Way

The Rationalist: The Death of Gut Instinct
The Copycat: The Next Starbucks
The Spin-Off: Hiding in Plain Sight
The Soloist: Balancing Act
The Idealist: Into the Frying Pan
The Zealot: Mission Critical
The Pro: The Rules
The Accidental Entrepreneur: Field of Dreams

Part 2: Anatomy Update -- Big Plans

Part 3: The Start-Up Diaries -- Year One


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