Weijie Poh, 34
| Star Profile
|| Life Motto
Weijie came from an average family, with his dad having to work two jobs to support the family. That also means that when things broke down at home, his dad had to improvise fixes and sometimes got him and his brothers to help out. As their dad always taught them, “When you encounter problems, don’t complain; think how to solve it.”
When Weijie grew up, he entered National University of Singapore (NUS) and majored in Life Science. Before this period, he had not thought about starting a company (probably all his Junior College friends would agree with that). During undergrad studies, Weijie signed up for NUS Overseas College (NOC) program and was posted to the BioValley Chapter hosted at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN) in United States for a year. The program was an eye-opener for him. At UPENN, students could ask professors out for lunch or coffee together, which the school strongly encouraged by sponsoring these meals. Would this happen in Singapore? He learned so much about entrepreneurship overseas and knew that one day, he would run his own.
From Undergrad to PhD to PathoVax
After graduating from NUS, Weijie pursued his PhD studies at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) with the intent to build a biotech startup based on one of its innovative discoveries. At JHU, he met Joshua Wang, who is also a Singaporean pursuing his PhD in vaccine research for the prevention and treatment of cancers and infectious diseases. Josh’s lab developed a superior cancer-preventive Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which is the first vaccine to show protection against all 15 cancer-causing HPVs. Later the vaccine was named RGVaxTM.
The catalyst for starting a company was an entrepreneurship course at JHU. All of the startup projects involve medical devices, so Joshua proposed working on the HPV vaccine since it was more applicable to his training as a molecular biologist. Working together, Josh and Weijie saw the potential of the vaccine, and then decided to partner up to commercialize this technology. In 2014, they co-founded PathoVax, one of the few startups focusing on biologics that is headed by graduate students. “I can’t think of anything more noble than preventing cancer,” said Weijie.
Journey to Entrepreneurship
Having a great product is just the first step. Commercializing a vaccine product is a very long process and requires substantial capital. Fortunately, the RGVax technology received a multi-million dollar grant from the US National Cancer Institute to product development. Currently, their main focus is on getting RGVax into human clinical testing (scheduled in 2019), so they are continuing fundraising efforts with more grants and funds from investors. To increase exposure, Weijie and Josh have participated in multiple competitions to showcase the RGVax vaccine breakthrough, through which they won a number of awards and attracted the attention of investors.
When PathoVax first started, both of them still have their regular day jobs as postdoctoral fellows at JHU and Harvard, but they knew they have to be working full-time on PathoVax. This was the hardest thing that they had to do; giving up a relatively secured and comfortable job to focus on a startup. As non-US citizens, their US visas are dependent on the success of the company, yet statistically-speaking most startups wouldn’t survive after 1 year. “Every day we keep telling ourselves that it’s a miracle that we are still not out of business. There are substantial odds against success, but if we do manage to bring a cancer-preventive vaccine into the clinic, isn’t it pretty awesome?”
For Weijie, running his own company is a fun experience since he gets to learn to manage challenges which he didn’t learn before while doing research in a lab. He admits that he was naïve at the beginning, but both he and Josh have the heart and passion to persevere, and remain committed to their mission. “It is the possibility that you can make an impact to this world drives us forward.”
Between Singapore and US
In US, it is not hard to find MIT or Harvard students who have the entrepreneurial mindset to start ventures and also have the grit to make it happen. Not only that, there is an ecosystem of industry experts, serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to provide feedback and share experiences. He believes that Singapore community can learn from this model of risk-taking and audacious-ness. Life is too short to work in a stable job that you might not be happy about. “I hope to see this culture change in Singapore one day,” said Weijie.
When the timing is right, Weijie would want to come back and contribute one day. It is his home country, so he wants to help to grow the biotech ecosystem here with his experience.
- Heart and passion are the most important things about entrepreneurship, because it’s so much easier to quit
- How many of us are really going to the extra mile to make things happen?
- We are only on this earth for maybe 80 years, so why not use this time to work on something that can make a real impact?
- With any challenges, ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen? Very often, taking the first step is the toughest action to do
- PathoVax LLC is a private biotechnology firm created to develop a best-in-class prophylactic vaccine RGVaxTM for a HPV vaccine market that generates over US $2billion each year
- Our mission is to develop and implement cutting edge-technology in HPV prophylaxis and other indications, to improve public health and the individual standard of living
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