Ryan Davies' career has been defined by taking risks. His newest company is taking on one of healthcare's biggest challenges.
The biotech industry isn't for the faint of heart. And that's why Ryan Davies jumped at the chance to lead CancerVax, a high-stakes, pre-clinical biotech partnering with UCLA to develop immunotherapy cancer treatments that use the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
CancerVax's mission is to develop a breakthrough universal cancer vaccine. That, Davies says, is more than just hairy and audacious.
It's "big," "high-risk," and "unique," he says. And right up this serial entrepreneur's alley.
"This opportunity really spoke to me," he says. "I like taking risks. I love diving in and achieving difficult goals. CancerVax is an exciting chance to make a difference."
A risk-taker by nature, Davies' entire career has been entrepreneurial. As a young man, he had anticipated a career in business management, but he began founding companies straight out of college. He established companies in e-commerce, technology, and software, and worked in energy and investments, before he fell in love with the challenges of biotech.
Ryan Davies, CEO of CancerVax. Photo courtesy CancerVax.
"My first company was a software ecommerce company, and I sold it and then started and sold another one. And then started and sold another one, until I ended up in the venture capital space," he says. "While there, we found a really cool technology being developed between the biology and chemistry departments at a major university. We licensed it and built a company around this crazy idea for developing a new class of antibiotics. I was put in as the interim CEO with no science experience. I was a business guy. But I absolutely fell in love with the biotech space."
The company was Curza, which he led for seven years, educating himself with For Dummies books about cell biology and attending organic chemistry classes. The 'crazy idea' developed into the CZ-02 platform of antibiotics for the treatment of drug-resistant bacterial infections. The CZ-02 platform represents a novel class of antibacterial agents with a unique mode of action.
The science learning curve in this experience was "tricky," Davies says, but not knowing everything upfront was also an advantage.
"One of the reasons that I've had success in the biotech space is because I don't know what I don't know," he says. "In the beginning, we were renegades. We didn't know that there was a very specific way of developing a drug, so we went down avenues and did things that were very atypical and very different. And I actually think that worked to our advantage."
Davies' biotech background has grown. He has co-founded several biotech companies, including wound-care company Advanox and medical device company Purgo Scientific.
One of the biggest challenges facing an "outsider" in the industry, he says, was learning to shift gears to align with the slower pace of drug development.
"I remember going straight from the business world into a partnership with a major university on the first biotech that I worked on, and how frustrated I was at the slow pace of academia," he said. Later, during a meeting with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), a staffer told him that the government process was going to be frustrating because the FDA wheels grind slow.
"'We're not fast like academia,' he said to me, and I nearly fell off my chair," Davies says.
He says he had to reframe his mindset to a more realistic view of the speed of the development process.
"I looked at other biotech companies and compared how long it took them to get to market," he says, "and as long as I'm moving at a pace that's a little quicker than what some of these companies have done historically, then I'm OK with that."
Davies took the reins at CancerVax in 2022 and is already applying his entrepreneurial skills to its two leading programs. CancerVax is focused on a novel universal cancer vaccine targeting multiple cancers, and a single disease immunotherapy targeting Ewing sarcoma.
According to Bloomberg Business, the cancer immunotherapy market is expected to grow to $196 billion by 2030. Davies believes immunotherapy drugs like Merck's Keytruda and Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb, which started out as niche products and became blockbusters with multiple cancer indications, are proof that not only is immunotherapy a growing and successful market, but also an opportunity for hope for cancer patients.
The newer cancer vaccine program involves creating a methodology that only targets cancer cells and leaves healthy cells alone.
"What is unique about cancer cells is there are markers specific to the cancer cells that healthy cells don't have," he says. "But most immunotherapy treatments today overlap between the cancer cell and the healthy cells, and a lot of healthy cells get killed. We're trying to correct that."
Davies cautions that this is not a preventative vaccine. Rather, it's a proactive approach to treatment.
The second disease-specific immunotherapy program is targeted at treating Ewing sarcoma, a rare and deadly bone and soft tissue cancer that affects children and young adults. There are currently no treatment options available for the disease, which has a high mortality rate and is diagnosed in only 200 to 250 patients a year.
In partnership with CancerVax, the Ewing Sarcoma Program at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center has made positive progress toward developing a treatment. This was CancerVax's first partnership with UCLA; the company has raised $2 million of seed funding to date and plans to raise an additional $10 million to further the development of these two programs.
Sluggers and Success
The Utah-based father of eight is a huge baseball fan. And surprisingly, given his location, his favorite Major League team is the Boston Red Sox.
"I love the strategy and the statistics behind baseball and my wife is a fan as well," he says. "We enjoy traveling and hearing live music, but we also like going to Major League ball games. It's something we like to do together."
He says baseball is not all that different from biotech in terms of strategy. Like legendary Red Sox sluggers Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, biotech leaders need to position themselves for the big wins without swinging too fast or too hard out of the gate.
Since the onset of sports analytics, building a baseball team has changed dramatically, as has research that uses healthcare data to fine-tune the development of medicine. Some days you win, and some days you don't.
"Biotech is high-risk," Davies says. "It's an expensive business and it takes a long time to get established. But there's a lot of different areas to pursue, so if we fail in one area, there are 100 different ways that we can pivot."
“In the beginning, we were renegades. We didn't know that there was a very specific way of developing a drug, so we went down avenues and did things that were very atypical and very different. And I actually think that worked to our advantage.”
— Ryan Davies, CEO, CancerVax
Robin Robinson is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders.
Ryan Davies has developed and launched several companies since coming out of college. His chosen field now is in biotech, and his latest venture is CancerVax.
The company is partnering with UCLA to develop immunotherapy cancer treatments that use the body's own immune system to fight cancer.
Davies says the Holy Grail of developing a cancer vaccine is reachable.