In the mid-1980s, Dr. Reid Rubsamen was working as a medical intern in San Francisco at the height of the country's HIV epidemic. "I saw everybody die. 100 percent mortality rate," he remembers. It helps explain why Rubsamen, an anesthesiologist by training, who went on to found several pharmaceutical companies, is now on a mission to wipe out HIV and AIDS with a groundbreaking vaccine. And that's not the only audacious part of his nonprofit venture Immunity Project.
Rubsamen's approach is straight out of Silicon Valley. Rather than seek the National Institute of Health's approval and grant money, Rubsamen crowdfunded his research. Heck, Rubsamen and his co-founder Naveen Jain even went through Y Combinator's incubator program.
"How much great work is sitting around undeveloped because it couldn't get early-stage funding?" Rubsamen asks rhetorically. "This crowdfunding thing could be mission critical to allowing small ideas to bubble up the way they do in the tech space."
Immunity Project's vaccine attempts to train the body's immune system to behave like a so-called controller's, someone who is naturally immune to HIV. Immunity Project's research team studied statistical data on precisely how a controller's T-Cells typically respond to the HIV virus and developed a vaccine to mimic that behavior.
The seven-person team raised about $463,000 to fund its first round of tests on mice. If all goes well, it will pursue Phase 1 clinical trial tests, which Rubsamen estimates could cost up to $25 million.
Critics call Immunity's methods flawed and its fundraising strategy misleading, because the vaccine is still unproven. Rubsamen, for his part, is the first to admit it might now work--and that's okay.
"If our method works, I'll be delighted. If it just provides an important piece of information and leads to further discussion, that's great too," he says. "I'm not afraid to fail. I'm afraid to not try."