Meet Ole Olesen, the Executive Director of the European Vaccine Initiative (EVI), a not-for-profit organization that develops new and improved vaccines for global health by collaborating with an extensive network of academic and industry partners in more than 30 countries worldwide. EVI uses the power of collaboration, innovation, open science, partnerships, and advocacy to move vaccines forward. Since its foundation in 1998, EVI has moved over 40 vaccine formulations against malaria, leishmaniasis, diarrhea, and Zika virus into clinical testing. The organization is also supporting a wide range of methodology development of non-animal approaches for vaccine quality control testing and assay harmonization, to train and support capacity strengthening for vaccine R&D in both Europe and several low and middle-income countries.
The Farsighted Leader
Ole Olesen is a scientist by training; he studied Molecular Biology at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and MRC in Cambridge, U.K. During his doctoral studies, Ole developed a keen interest in the practical application of life science and took up a position in big pharma. Starting his career in drug discovery research, he worked his way through the drug development pipeline in positions of increasing responsibility, culminating in the position of Global Project Director. During this period, he also started two spin-out biotech companies from scratch. While one of these was focused on genetic testing for private customers, the other was built around a proprietary technology that Ole had invented for drug delivery of peptide-based pharmaceuticals.
After spending over a decade in the pharmaceutical industry, Ole got the opportunity to work for the European Commission (EC), which established a new department to start an ambitious research program for poverty-related infectious diseases. Although he initially envisioned it as a short career break from corporate life, it soon evolved into a lifelong passion for global health, primarily in the EC, later as the Director of International Corporation at the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) and for the last three years as the Executive Director of EVI.
“Establishing a couple of biotech start-ups and a new public research program has given me a personal experience with the challenges and frustrations that small innovative companies are facing,”- Ole remembers. “However, it has also demonstrated the intoxicating drive and enthusiasm that a small group of talented people can unleash when working together in a creative environment. My motivation for joining EVI was, therefore, very much to lead an organization where we work to improve global health by combining the best aspects of the industry, biotech, and academia.”
An Extremely Flexible Organization
EVI is a science-driven product development partnership (PDP), specializing in vaccine development for neglected and pandemic pathogens. The organization has a strong core team of in-house experts, but its strongest asset is undoubtedly an extensive global network of trusted and reliable partners, collaborators, and contractors it has established over many years. This network makes it possible for EVI to timely mobilize a critical mass of know-how and expertise.
Tackling the Pandemic
The COVID pandemic caused a major disruption in EVI’s business activities. As the organization is working on vaccine development, many of its collaborators and sub-contractors suddenly became involved in the pandemic response, which kept EVI’s vaccine development activities on hold. However, on the positive side of things, the pandemic gave formidable visibility to vaccines as important medical solutions. The pandemic also triggered EVI to change its working modality and introduce flexible working conditions to keep its employees safe from the virus.
Looking at the Future
Ole feels the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of developing and delivering new vaccines to people at risk worldwide as quickly as possible. EVI continues to actively work towards streamlining and shortening its clinical development activities while keeping a lean and highly cost-effective organization. As a long-term goal, EVI is also planning to get more actively involved in supporting capacity building for vaccine research and vaccine delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the need is particularly pronounced.
“EVI is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and deliver safe, effective, and affordable vaccines for global health, including diseases as diverse as malaria, diarrheal infections, and emerging viral diseases,”- Ole explained. “We have a supervisory board and an external advisory board that keeps us on track toward this mission and help us priorities our activities.”