Robert Nelsen (Illustration by Emma Kumer for Endpoints News)

Af­ter Big Phar­ma aban­doned in­fec­tious dis­eases, 5 biotech con­trar­i­ans de­cid­ed to go all in. Then Covid-19 changed every­thing

Bob Nelsen had been qui­et­ly won­der­ing how to erad­i­cate virus­es for years, be­fore one day in 2015, he wel­comed a pair of im­mu­nol­o­gists in­to the ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners of­fices on the 34th floor of Seat­tle’s Wells Far­go Build­ing.

Louis Pick­er and Klaus Früh, pro­fes­sors at Ore­gon Health & Sci­ence Uni­ver­si­ty, had by then spent 5 years run­ning around the coun­try in search of fund­ing for their start­up, TomegaVax, and Früh, at least, was near­ing wit’s end. The Gates Foun­da­tion was in­ter­est­ed but told them they need­ed oth­er in­vestors. In­vestors told them to come back with more da­ta, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ex­ec­u­tives said they’re in the wrong game — too lit­tle mon­ey to be made fight­ing in­fec­tious dis­ease. Still, a well-con­nect­ed board mem­ber named Bob More land­ed them a meet­ing with the cov­et­ed ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, and so, in a nar­row con­fer­ence room over­look­ing the Puget Sound, Pick­er pre­pared to again ex­plain the idea he had spent 15 years on: re-en­gi­neer­ing a be­nign mi­crobe in­to the first vac­cines for HIV and bet­ter ones for he­pati­tis and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis.

“This light­bulb went on his head,” Pick­er re­called in a re­cent in­ter­view. “Most of them just didn’t get it. And Bob’s hit.”

By that point, Nelsen was more than just a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist. Scrag­gly and grey­ing but no less opin­ion­at­ed at 52, he was mobbed at biotech con­fer­ences, hav­ing earned a rep­u­ta­tion for crass wis­dom and un­can­ny fore­sight, for mak­ing big bets on big ideas that changed med­i­cine. Those ideas in­clud­ed DNA se­quenc­ing, which he first cut a check for in the 90s, and lever­ag­ing the im­mune sys­tem to tack­le can­cer. He earned mil­lions mak­ing bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies.

Yet for years he had har­bored an al­most sin­gu­lar ob­ses­sion: “I hate virus­es,” he told Forbes in 2016. He told me he was “pissed off” at them. The ob­ses­sion drove him to his first biotech in­vest­ment in 1993, for an in­hal­able flu vac­cine ap­proved a decade lat­er and still in use. And it drove him to in­vest in CAR-T as a po­ten­tial cure for HIV, years be­fore it proved a wild­ly ef­fec­tive treat­ment for some can­cers.

Now, lis­ten­ing to Pick­er talk about T cells and an­ti­bod­ies and the cu­ri­ous bi­ol­o­gy of cy­tomegalovirus, Nelsen be­gan won­der­ing if it was time for an­oth­er bet. Pick­er’s tech­nol­o­gy was not on­ly promis­ing, he rea­soned, it could be the ba­sis of a com­pa­ny that changed how re­searchers ap­proached virus­es. In­stead of try­ing to come up with an an­ti­dote for every pathogen, you could do what can­cer re­searchers had learned to do, and har­ness the im­mune sys­tem to do the work for you.

This wasn’t a pop­u­lar opin­ion at the time. “It’s like the least trendy idea in the world,” Nelsen told me. “Peo­ple would say, ‘Why the hell are you go­ing in­to in­fec­tious dis­ease?’”

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