Pennsylvania’s Inovio Pharma Doubles Workforce, Continues Hiring Spree

Pennsylvania’s Inovio Doubles Workforce, Continues Hiring Spree April 27, 2016
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

PLYMOUTH MEETING, Penn. – For years, Joseph Kim has been driven with a desire to develop something that can benefit humanity. Now, as chief executive officer of Inovio Pharmaceuticals , he is helping to blaze a trail by pioneering DNA-based vaccines and therapies that target cancers and infectious diseases.

“I have a strong interest in using our platform to treat global health concerns,” Kim told BioSpace in an exclusive interview. With its SynCor DNA plasmid technology, Inovio is developing therapies to produce disease-specific antigens and cytokines to kick-start the body’s own immune system and fight cancers and other pathogens. Kim said DNA-based technologies have been used for approximately 20 years. However, he said Inovio is “taking the leadership into pushing it from being good science into being a platform of products that can help patients with cancer and those with infectious diseases.”

This year, Inovio plans to move the first DNA-sequenced drug into Phase III trials. Inovio’s VGX-3100 is the first non-surgical and non-invasive treatment for cervical dysplasia caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are approximately 250,000 women who are diagnosed with HPV in the U.S. and Europe each year. If left untreated, HPV can lead to cervical cancer. In its earlier clinical trials, the company said VGX-3100 induced regression of precancerous cervical disease and cleared HPV infection with robust T cell responses.

“We’re very excited about this. We want to bring this transformative cancer prevention therapy to market,” Kim said. “This will be a major step forward.”

Those successes have allowed Inovio to enjoy a period of growth, which is expected to continue throughout the rest of 2016. Over the past 18 months Inovio has doubled its headcount to about 200 employees and Kim said he anticipates employment to be in the “high 200s” by the end of 2016.

Inovio launched in 2000, led by Kim and his mentor and DNA pioneer, David Weiner from the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. The two men built the company from the ground up and in 16 years have grown the one-man operation into a company traded on the NASDAQ with a market value of $650 million.

Since the days he was working on his Ph.D., Kim said he has wanted to develop something that could benefit his fellow man. However, Kim knows that trailblazers often find pitfalls that delay their progress. Kim said that’s the price of progress. Most studies do not succeed, which is why it’s a long and costly process to get new medical or chemical entities. Kim said he and his team design and execute the best clinical studies they can. If the data is good, they move on to the next stage, but if it’s not, they “torture the data” to see how they can do better.

“Failure is a great teacher. Each failure is a moment to learn. Failure separates the people you want to spend your time in the foxholes with. The difficult times bring about the best and worst characters of their fellow team members,” Kim said. Over the past 10 to 15 years, Kim said Inovio has seen more successes than failures, particularly in recent clinical studies due to what they have learned over the years.

Under Kim’s leadership, Inovio has forged partnerships multiple pharma companies, including a $700 million deal with MedImmune (AZN), AstraZeneca ’s research and development arm. Under this new deal, MedImmune acquired exclusive rights to Inovio’s INO-3112 immunotherapy against cancers caused by HPV types 16 and 18. Kim also oversaw a $400 million hepatitis B pact with Roche and most recently a $45 million contract with DARPA for an Ebola vaccine and treatment.

“No company has ever gone out of business for having too much cash,” Kim said, expressing something he learned from the “school of hard knocks,” as opposed to Wharton, where he earned a MBA. “One of the teachings I learned early was to have a good cash position. I make sure we have a strong balance sheet.”

Kim said Inovio’s approach has been validated through clinical trial data and because of that he hopes his company will be the first to develop treatment for emerging infectious diseases, such as MERS and the Zika virus. Inovio is currently conducting a Phase I trial for MERS at Walter Reed Hospital and is in position to being the first in-man study for Zika later this year, Kim said.

Kim anticipates that within the next few years the company will “get one or more pipeline products successfully past the hurdles of clinical testing and into the market where they can help patients who are suffering from various diseases.” When Inovio does have an approved product, Kim said he will feel justified. He said it’s a “long and arduous” process to get products developed and approved.

“The ends are not the only justifications. It’s the end and the journey,” Kim said.

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