PROVIDENCE –– The University of Rhode Island has hired the founder of one of the state’s best-known biotechnology firms to lead researchers in thedevelopment of vaccines against malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis.
Annie S. De Groot, 53, is not leaving EpiVax Inc., the Providence-based company she helped create in 1998, building on software technology she developed at Brown University. She is president and chief executive officer of the company, which last year recorded $2.5 million in sales.
De Groot is also continuing to treat tuberculosis patients at Miriam Hospital and helping to open a free medical clinic in Olneyville that may offer a center on infectious disease.
At URI, De Groot will direct the newly created Institute for Immunology and Informatics,
teaching a spring course, writing grants and overseeing two faculty members — Leonard Moise, De Groot’s EpiVax colleague and former student at Brown, and De Groot’s father, endocrinologist Leslie J. De Groot.
The institute’s goals are ambitious. Annie De Groot says she hopes to discover vaccines against an array of diseases that plague poor countries, while developing tools to predict organ transplant success and improve existing vaccines to prevent allergic reactions and other complications.
URI officials, meanwhile, say they hope the institute will strengthen the university’s presence in Providence, bolster its credentials as a center for biotechnology research and
training, and breathe life into the city’s sputtering economy. The institute is part of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences.
Just last month, URI opened a $59-million biotechnology center in South Kingstown. But state and Providence policymakers have begun a loosely coordinated effort to establish a biotechnology hub in the city, and URI wants to play a central role.
The Science and Technology Advisory Council, an advisory panel for legislators and Governor Carcieri, has called for opening a publicly owned training and networking center in Providence for start-up companies, including biotechnology firms.
The state’s universities and hospitals are eyeing a shared biotechnology complex on land being freed up by the relocation of Route 195. And in his State of the City address on
Tuesday, Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline called for building an incubator for biotechnology companies.
“URI already has a great foothold here,” Jeffrey R. Seemann, dean of the College of Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, said. “We will be
part of the economic revitalization of this city.”
De Groot has not yet set up the institute’s research laboratory –– URI’s first in Providence –– built for $200,000 on the third floor of the Feinstein building on Washington Street. Her belongings lie in cardboard boxes.
But expansion plans are already being discussed. By June, De Groot said, the institute is expected to have hired a postdoctoral researcher, three technicians and a fourth faculty member. Institute documents project $10 million in spending over the next three years, followed by an additional $60 million for a separate biotechnology complex in the Jewelry District.
Plans call for collaborations with the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown’s computational biology department; clinical studies at downtown hospitals; the transfer of technology to pharmaceutical manufacturers; and the training of developing-world
Professors at the institute, known informally as I-cubed, will make use of EpiVax’s bioinformatics tools to study tropical diseases, such as dengue fever, that drug makers largely ignore. Using equipment at the university’s Providence Biotechnology Center, researchers will design, produce and test vaccines in what De Groot calls a “genome–to–vaccine” approach.
“It’s unique to Rhode Island, it’s unique to the URI program,” said De Groot, who taught and researched at Brown for a decade.
The EpiVax software scans the vast assemblages of letters that define the protein sequences of deadly pathogens. That allows researchers to identify common patterns in different strains of a pathogen, permitting the development of new and more effective vaccines and treatments.
EpiVax is not charging the institute for using its software. But the company, as well as Brown University, will have partial rights to potentially lucrative, disease-prevention discoveries.
“Everybody gets rich if something is discovered,” Seemann said.
For its part, EpiVax’s research on an AIDS vaccine and the licensing of its software to drug companies will not be slowed by De Groot’s new focus, she said.
The company has 15 employees, many hired shortly after its founding, and it has won praise from state officials as an example of a commercially successful business born of local academic research.
EpiVax is a privately held company, but it has received investments from the Slater Technology Fund, a taxpayer-backed pool of venture capital. Its sales grew from $1 million in 2004 to $2.4 million in 2007.
“We’re really well organized,” De Groot said. “People have been with me forever.”
The URI project, De Groot said, will make important use of EpiVax software. “We always felt there should be uses for these tools that are not commercial,” she said.