The VIC Fellows Program provides an opportunity for individuals with relevant expertise and interest to learn how to identify and evaluate promising innovations from global sources. We are pleased to highlight the members of the 2023-2024 class of Fellows in our ongoing series of interviews, such as this recent discussion with Jonathan Rayner, PhD.
You have an extensive and multifaceted background. Could you please share it with us?After completing my graduate studies, I did post-docs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) where I first became interested in translation research. The vaccine platform technology we developed at USAMRIID was spun off into a new biotech company called Alphavax where I continued my efforts to refine the platform resulting in several different patents. Unfortunately, we were never successful in licensing a vaccine and the company folded; however, before that happened, I was recruited to MRIGlobal, a contract research organization in Kansas City. Here I served as principal investigator, program manager, and study director on multiple contracts with various federal agencies to develop new methods and technologies to detect, decontaminate, and protect against a myriad of infectious disease pathogens. Based on this experience I was recruited to another contract research organization, Southern Research, where I served as the Director of Infectious Disease Research in the Drug Development Division and focused my efforts on preclinical safety and efficacy studies to support FDA licensure of new vaccines and therapeutics. While at Southern Research, I came to realize that a lot of small biotech companies wanting to advance their technologies into the market simply couldn’t afford the significant costs of the contract research institutions and were instead relying on University Labs to provide that initial proof of concept. As such, I started talking with the University of South Alabama, which had a brand new state-of-the-art Biosafety Level 3 facility that was underutilized and joined the faculty in 2017 to offer my experience and expertise to these small companies. Since then, my colleagues and I have performed numerous studies with our collaborators, small biotech companies, and the federal government to discover and advance infectious disease technologies much as I’ve done throughout my career. Based on this success, we are in the process of establishing the South Alabama Biotechnology Research Center to officially offer translational contract research services in infectious diseases.
Given all that you done, what made you decide to become a VIC Fellow?
Based on my experiences, many innovative discoveries never move beyond the university bench simply due to a lack of financial resources and industry know-how. Thus, it has become my personal goal to help advance potentially lifesaving technologies into the market. The VIC Tech model is specifically geared to advancing life sciences technologies from initial discovery into the market, so I became a VIC fellow to learn more about the due diligence process and offer my expertise in identifying and advancing promising technologies.
What are your goals for participating in the Fellows program?
Besides being a lifelong learner who thrives on new experiences, my primary goal is to expand my knowledge and experience beyond infectious disease research. Under the Fellows program, we’re evaluating technologies across the life sciences, and I’m learning new things every week.
What are your top areas of interest as far as technologies, therapeutic areas, etc?
I’ve spent most of my career working to advance new vaccines to protect against infectious disease and while that is still of interest, the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to highlight the impact of vaccine hesitancy on the potential utility of prophylactic vaccines. Therapeutics on the other hand are much more acceptable; however, antiviral therapies that are both safe and efficacious are significantly lacking currently. Consequently, I’m keenly interested in new broad-spectrum antivirals that could be used to treat emerging and re-emerging viral pathogens of importance to public health.
As an academic researcher with private sector experience, what guidance can you provide to university innovators contemplating moving their inventions forward?
It’s very important that university investigators are actively engaged with their tech transfer offices at the earliest stages possible to ensure that their innovations are protected when they consider moving their inventions forward. I would venture to say that most PhD programs don’t teach students extensively about intellectual property protection, thus, many faculty researchers, particularly new faculty, are often unaware or unprepared to protect their potential innovations.
How can universities better support them?
Education! It’s imperative that university tech transfer offices develop training programs for translational research and intellectual property protection. This training can be provided during or shortly after onboarding of new faculty so that university policies, which can be different between entities, are clearly understood. Schools and mentors should also consider adding this training to the PhD curriculum so that the scientist they produce are ahead of the game when they move on with their own careers.