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Making vaccines accessible to everyone

Following a passion is one thing, but following a passion that also benefits millions of people worldwide? That’s pretty rare – and Dr Nicolas Collin is doing just that. Here, he tells us more about his work in the field of not-for-profit vaccine development.

Tell us about the journey that led you to where you are today.

When I was six years old, I decided I wanted to be a vet. I graduated from the National Veterinary School of Toulouse in 2002. During my last year there, I realised what I loved most was scientific reasoning – investigating the ‘why’ behind scientific work. So I did a PhD in virology and have worked in the field of vaccination ever since.

I was working at the WHO when the 2009 swine flu pandemic hit. This was a pivotal time for me. I discovered what global health was about and how an organisation like the WHO can impact the lives of millions, if not billions, of people. My colleagues and I discussed the idea of creating a platform focused on adjuvants, ingredients in vaccines that improve the immune response, and so VFI was born. It first started in 2010 within the University of Lausanne but has since been established as an independent, not-for-profit organisation based in Geneva and Biopôle Lausanne.

What is VFI’s mission?

VFI’s main mission is to develop and provide adjuvants – ingredients that can be added to vaccines to create a stronger immune response – to the entire vaccine community. Everything started with a gap we identified at the WHO. Adjuvants have historically been owned by a handful of vaccine developers. This is because there’s no incentive for these developers to share adjuvants that work for their vaccines with competitors. To us, this was an ethical conundrum – and those who lost out were typically low- and middle-income countries.

So we opened a centre of expertise to provide adjuvants of quality to the whole vaccine community on an open-source basis. We also provide the expertise and know-how to equip manufacturers with the capacity to make high-quality vaccines at an affordable price.

There have been pandemics throughout history, and globalisation isn’t going to change that.

What is your role within the organisation?

I’m the co-founder and CEO of VFI. As well as the traditional responsibilities of a CEO, one of my main aims is to make sure we’re sticking to our values. We have strong values – such as transparency, independence and a spirit of collaboration – and I make sure these stay intact every day.

VFI is a force for good in the world. What are you most proud of?

One enormous achievement is the commercialisation of our first adjuvant. Our adjuvant SWE became the first adjuvant for prophylactic human vaccines to be available worldwide on this open-access model since aluminium salts were first used as vaccine adjuvants in 1926. So it has taken almost 100 years, but we made it happen! This adjuvant is now commercialised on a large scale and has entered various clinical trials with Covid-19 vaccines.

In light of your experience at the WHO and at VFI, what lessons do you think we can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic?

One thing we need to remember is that the Covid-19 pandemic was not an abnormal event. There have been pandemics throughout history, and globalisation isn’t going to change that.

When the pandemic started, people demanded immediate answers. And what scientists should have said was: ‘We don’t know yet. The virus runs this show. We’ll investigate.’ Because the truth is, we had no clue whether a vaccine was possible, how transmissible the virus was, how many waves there would be, etc. Because of media influence and the public’s (understandable) desire to know what was going to happen next, there was little room to explain this. For me, science should be about truth and not predictions, but it takes time. I hope we can learn from this.

But there were also huge achievements as a result of Covid-19, weren’t there?

Absolutely. Before the pandemic, the quickest anyone had been able to develop a vaccine was five years, which was already remarkable. At the start of the pandemic, the scientific community was sceptical that a vaccine would be ready in less than five years. And yet multiple safe and effective vaccines were developed in just one year. This is an unprecedented achievement in the history of medicine. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this success.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to love people.

What are your top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?

  1. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to love people. Running a business is never a one-person show. Everything is about your relationships with people. This is even more important than having an exciting product or technology. So cultivate people skills.
  2. Self-doubt is essential. This may be the opposite to what you hear in business school, but doubt puts you in a stronger position; it’s like a constant stress test. On a related note, you need to listen to an enormous amount of advice. Keep consulting others because we all have biases – this is especially important as it helps you become agile and flexible.
  3. You need to be persistent – and obsessed with persistence.
  4. Don’t waste too much time in the planning phase. We all love business plans, objectives, etc. It’s good to have some plans and frameworks, but you also need to look at what you have and how best to use it.
  5. You need to love problems because entrepreneurship is all about dealing with problems. You should also ask yourself: am I at ease with disruptive, chaotic environments? Because this is also what entrepreneurship is about.
Dr Nicolas Collin
Co-Founder and CEO of VFI (Vaccine Formulation Institute)
Nicolas Collin is the co-founder and CEO of the Vaccine Formulation Institute, a not-for-profit institute dedicated to vaccine adjuvants and formulation. Nicolas holds a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from the National Veterinary School in Toulouse, a PhD in Virology from the University of Toulouse and a Business Leadership degree from the IMD Executive Programme in Lausanne. After having worked in the biotech industry and at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC, Nicolas joined the World Health Organization in Geneva as a Technical Officer in influenza and was a member of the WHO Pandemic Influenza Vaccine Task Force during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. He then joined the University of Lausanne where he led a group working on vaccine adjuvants. In 2012, Nicolas co-founded the Vaccine Formulation Institute, which he leads to this day. Supported by the European Commission, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CEPI and other stakeholders, VFI develops adjuvants on an open-access basis for inclusion in affordable vaccines for global health applications.
Vaccine Formulation Institute
VFI is a not-for-profit company based in Switzerland, dedicated to provide its adjuvants and vaccine formulation expertise technologies in open-access to all interested groups.

VFI has offices and stare-of-the art laboratories in both Epalinges, Vaud (Biopôle) and Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva (Centre des Technologies Nouvelles).

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