Millions of dollars in federal funding helped leverage private investment in a growing Corridor-based radiopharmaceutical company, expanding its economic impact and attracting top talent to Iowa.
Viewpoint Molecular Targeting, on the cusp of major advancements in cancer detection and treatment technologies, is based at the University of Iowa BioVentures Center in Coralville, with a business office in Iowa City.
The company has attracted more than $10 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) Small Business Innovation Research funding in the past five years.
Small Business Innovation Research grants are in a highly competitive program that encourages small businesses to engage in research and development with the potential for commercialization.
“We’ve been growing fast,” said Michael Schultz, Viewpoint’s chief science officer and co-founder with his wife, Dr. Frances Johnson, who serves as the company’s CEO. “The team continues to grow.”
Viewpoint, a University of Iowa startup, was founded in 2008.
Mr. Schultz noted that Viewpoint’s new chief business strategy officer is moving with his family to Iowa from Australia, and other recruits are coming from the West Coast and Canada.
With 15 employees now, the company expects to employ 20 by the end of this year, he said, consisting of highly skilled, well-paying jobs, such as biomedical engineers.
A 2021 report shows the NIH, which serves as the nation’s premier health research agency, helps fuel the economy through its programs, in addition to improving and saving lives.
More than 80% of the agency’s annual budget is awarded through competitive grants to researchers in every state.
The report showed in fiscal 2020, the NIH awarded 61,933 grants totaling $34.65 billion to researchers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
That research funding supported 536,338 jobs and drove $91.35 billion in economic activity.
In Iowa, the NIH awarded $223.2 million in grants and contracts during fiscal year 2020 that directly supported 3,661 jobs and $534 million in economic activity in the state.
Top funded research institutions in Iowa include the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, Viewpoint Molecular Targeting, Palmer College of Chiropractic and the Iowa Oncology Research Association.
“About 25% of what we do is specifically earmarked and paid for out of NIH funds,” Mr. Schultz noted.
The company is developing a new class of “theranostics” that enable the ability to see a specific tumor and then treat it to potentially improve efficacy and minimize the toxicity associated with many other types of cancer treatments. Theranostics refers to the combination of using a radioactive drug to identify or diagnose cancer tumors and later delivering therapy to treat the main cancer tumor and any metastatic tumors.
Viewpoint recently launched patient enrollment and screening in a Phase 1 imaging study of its VMT01 product at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
VMT01 is an injectable radiopharmaceutical that can be used to determine the location and extent of cancerous tumors in the body and more accurately direct lethal doses of radiation to those same cancer cells.
Mr. Schultz said while the NIH funding helps bring such studies to fruition, the grants also demonstrate to other potential funding sources that Viewpoint has been scientifically vetted.
“It is entrepreneurial and risky,” he said of having a startup company, but taking that route can help speed the timeline of bringing research full-circle to help cancer patients. “I decided I wanted to see this come to fruition in my lifetime.”
Mr. Schultz noted that the average time to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for cancer therapeutics is about ten years from the initiation of the first clinical trial.
“That’s a long time to have a big operation to get something like that done,” he said, so having such funding is essential but needs to be combined with private investment.
Viewpoint has raised $13.4 million in private equity, which can be used for equipment that NIH grants do not fund.
“You can do studies and do great science, and it’s really important,” Mr. Schultz said of the grant work. “From a regulatory perspective, there’s a whole bunch of work that needs to be done to validate the investigational product for use in a clinical trial. All of that costs way more than you can ever afford through a grant.”
He credits BioConnect Iowa, which supports entrepreneurs statewide in the bioscience industry, for providing matching grants and offering letters of support for the grants.
“It’s important for people to realize that’s a lot of money that can be brought into the state to create jobs,” Mr. Schultz said. “It’s also a diversification of our state’s economic activity. We are a testament to the idea that we can build and keep companies like this in Iowa, and we’re doing something that can potentially benefit society in a positive way.”
By Cindy Hadish - August 23, 2021