Wired In: Federico Zuckermann

Wired In: Federico Zuckermann

On Sundays, staff writer Paul Wood spotlights a high-tech difference maker. This week, FEDERICO ZUCKERMANN, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine who has created a vaccine that could help solve a $650 million problem in the pork industry. Zuckermann, 59, founded Aptimmune in 2010 to license the biotechnology — after becoming a veterinary doctor in Mexico and earning a doctorate at the University of Texas-Dallas. He's a stair-walker who gets in more than 15,000 steps a day.

Who else is on your team?

We contract out some of our work. The employees are myself, founder and chief scientific officer; Aaron Gilbertie, president and CEO; Development Director Steve Berger; Operations Director Gary Durack and a senior scientist, Gabriela Calzada-Nova; and Financial Officer Angela McFarland.

What does Aptimmune make?

I created the cell line. Macrophages are very difficult to grow, but I figured out how to do it. We are growing a virus in the cell line, a pig virus, to create the vaccine. I license the technology from University of Illinois that I developed at my research laboratory hee. I have been working on the technology for over 10 years. The disease is call porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, first reported in the U.S. in 1987. Nobody knows where it came from. The virus has become even more virulent with time. It can be lethal in combination with other diseases; it could kill all the sows and the nursing piglets. It can wipe out an entire farm. It also hinders growth in pigs, causing huge economic losses. Everywhere there are pigs, there is this problem.

How does your solution work?

We're trying to solve this with a vaccine, a non-virulent or non-pathogenic version of the virus, or right now trying to used an inactivated virus. It will be delivered intranasally; the syndrome is usually spread through the respiratory tract. It will be safe and very effective. Nobody else is working on this approach; the traditional method is to inject it. We received feedback from veterinarians that they could do it intranasally. It's less traumatic for the pig.

And will pork producers buy it?

The potential market is huge, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We're doing everything we can to get the vaccine to market as soon as possible, and we think can do that in a short time. For a small company, it is a lot of effort.

How long has this been in the works?

I've been working on the vaccine for years and years. I wanted to take the technology farther, and I decided I needed someone to license it, so I started this company to bring it to market, because some people are very risk-averse or skeptical. I licensed my own technology from the university. In the research park, there are wonderful facilities with lots of support and advice.

When will it be on the market?

We're doing a lot through contract manufacturing. They produce the vaccine for us. We have the first batch of vaccine we are selling in the next couple of months. The investors want to have revenue as soon as possible.

Who are some of your investors?

We had to raise several million dollars. Being a professor, you have no clue about the money side. In one year, we have made a significant amount of progress. The first two angel investors were Fox Ventures and veteran entrepreneur Gary Durack. Former UI President Bob Easter was an early investor. Now we have Arsenal Capital in St. Louis, Midwest Angel Investors, Common Place Investors, The Yield Lab and Illinois Ventures.

Where do you see yourself going in the future?

The business plan right now is to go to market, generate some revenue, and then see if we can partner with or be bought by another company. If that were to happen, I would stay on; the work comes out of my research in immunology and how to make a vaccine.

TECH TIDBITS from FEDERICO ZUCKERMANN

Are you on social networks? The CEO likes those. I'm on LinkedIn and have a personal Facebook page.

Books or Kindles? Books.

What are you reading now? "Pox and the Covenant" by Tony Williams. I also read the Bible regularly.

Wearable electronics? A Fitbit.