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Fusion Series

How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected

Silk Vaccine, Please, No Ice … and a Coke?

Millions of Lives & USD16Bn to Save with Non-Refrigerated Vaccines


Fusion Series Part 1: Outward Openness

Livio Valenti fuses:
- silk protein fibres & vaccines with business development
- business & social initiatives 
- a diverse founding team

Walking down a dusty path, fine-grained dirt sifts between your toes. Dust gets into your hair and teeth. Heat makes it stick to a thin layer of sweat.

There's a seller in the village up ahead.




"Yes!" Handing over hot coins (not exactly cold cash), the seller has another important question:

"Would you like a vaccine to go with it?"

"A what??"

It's a very real possibility, with silk-protein-stabilized vaccines. When a fibroin (silk protein) solution is added to a vaccine, the biological compounds are encased in a matrix that protects them from degrading from thermal and other stresses. In other words, they no longer need refrigeration.

Many of today's vaccines are shelf-unstable and must be stored either frozen or between 2°C and 8°C. Each year, up to half of all vaccines lose effectiveness because they are not kept at the right temperature. Healthcare workers administering them don't always know which doses are spoiled. The consequences can be dire.

Annually, 2.4 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases. One in every five people fails to receive basic vaccines—50% of children in some parts of the World. Cold-chain distribution is a major obstacle, absorbing 80% or more of immunisation costs. With the global vaccine market valued at USD 20 billion, that's USD 16 billion that could be put to better use in- or outside of healthcare.

Do vaccines have to be administered by nurses with hypodermic needles—a medical technology developed in 1656? No. And again, silk offers a new route. With a 5-minute application of the Mimix™ sustained-release patch, silk fibroin microneedles infused with vaccine or immunotherapy can be painlessly inserted into the skin for sustained release over a course of days or weeks.

In fact, vaccine/therapy effectiveness can rise dramatically because silk microneedle delivery mimics the prolonged exposure of a natural infection.

So, with new vaccines and new microneedles, all that's needed is a means for controlling who receives them, plus a distribution network that reaches cities and villages in every nation on earth. Coca Cola reaches all but 2 nations and was considered early-on as a possible channel partner. App-enabled health workers are another possibility, as is the existing vaccine distribution chain, sans refrigerators.



Cambodia: One Thread in the Silk Road

Silk has a long history of inspiring new advances. Silk textiles were created in China around 2,700 BC, and silk trade routes opened around 130 BC (once the material was no longer reserved for royalty and banned from trade). The Silk Routes (or Silk Road) not only carried merchandise, but also people and ideas. Hubs of culture and learning grew along the routes, fostering a continual infusion and expansion of art, literature, craft—and science & technology.

The United Nations maintains an information-base on Silk Route countries, and in 2009, they sent a young analyst to one of them—Cambodia. Still a silk producer, the nation faced serious development challenges, and the analyst—Livio Valenti—wanted to help.

Livio is an economist by training from a small town in Italy. Conversant in four languages, he studied economics in Italy (focusing on interactions between public and private sectors), followed by studies in the US and China.

He didn't follow his fellow economics graduates to jobs in banks. Instead, with a desire to make a difference, he took a job with the UN in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, serving as chief of staff. He wanted to help the silk industry thrive and help the nation thrive. Although a perfect place to grow silk, the nation hadn't moved up the "value-added curve." People were still desperately poor.

Livio worked to create higher-value products, but the quality of the silk they could produce and the processing they performed wasn't enough to lift the industry.

"I felt I had wasted the project money—I felt very responsible for it. So I said, ‘What else can I do?' One day I was feeling sad and went online to figure out what else we can do with silk, and I found that in Korea it's used for fish food. They use silk because it's protein. There were other uses I thought interesting. Then one day, I stumbled upon this TED talk—this scientist looking a little like me and talking about how to use silk for biomedical engineering."

It was a TED talk by Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto (Silk, the Ancient Material of the Future) on new uses of silk for light transmission (e.g. optical guided lights), sustainability (as water-processed, biodegradable packaging), tensile strength (e.g. for knee ligaments), and medicine (e.g. resorbables and implantables).



A New Thread in the Silk Road—Boston

Faced with bureaucratic drift and no clear vision of a higher-value-added road to development, Livio decided to go back to school in 2011 and search for what he should do. He joined Harvard's Kennedy School of government for a Master's in Public Policy.

While in Boston, he made an appointment to meet the TED speaker, a professor at Tufts University in bio-medical engineering and physics. With research covering optics, nanostructured materials (e.g. photonic crystals and photonic crystal fibers), nanofabrication, and biopolymer-based photonics, he pioneered (with David Kaplan) the use of silk in photonics, optoelectronics, edible sensors, resorbables, implantables, and more. An electrical engineer by training and PhD in applied physics, Fortune Magazine named him one of the top 50 people in technology development, alongside Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.

He recognized a link between tech-nology and a bio-material (silk)—particular features exhibited by silk that were earlier thought to be the sole domain of advanced photonic (technological) materials.

"That moment of recognition led to asking a lot of questions like, "If this is such a good material for photonics, then what can we put in it, to give it some unusual optical or technological function?" And so we started mixing biologicals with silk, for example putting blood inside optics. We found that these optical components with blood inside of them behaved unexpectedly—something you wouldn't expect in a film format that was left in a drawer for many weeks. This coexistence of form and biological function led us to recognize that this could be a very broad and powerful platform."
– Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto, Scientific Co-Founder & Director of Vaxess

They put all sorts of things inside the photonic-optical components—including vaccines.


Weaving the Threads—Vaxess

Back at Harvard and building on his interest in the public and private sectors, Livio took a class at the business school called, "Commercializing Science." He gathered a team, they wrote a business plan for commercializing silk-stabilized vaccines, and at age 29, he co-founded Vaxess (for "vaccine access"), with his teammates and Fio. After graduation, Livio became Vice President of Policy & Strategy; scientist Kathryn Kosuda became Vice President of R&D; and lawyer Patrick Ho became Vice President of licensing & regulation; with Michael Schrader as CEO.

Early vaccine tests showed relatively small loss of efficacy, and further tests would have to be conducted to show that products using their stabilization technology were both effective and reasonably devoid of unforeseen side effects. Findings were encouraging, though, and they were well on their way.

Vaxess moved into the Harvard Innovation Lab (a multi-disciplinary co-working space), won three business-plan competitions, and raised USD 3.75 million in first-round funding. Grants and awards have come from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Verizon. In 2017, they received USD 6 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vaxess Technologies was featured in The Economist, Forbes, the New York Times, NPR, Fast Company, CNBC and many other media venues. Livio joined Forbes' 30-Under-30 list.


Questions Mark an Open Road

Each member of the multi-national, multi-disciplinary founding team (business, government, law, & science) brings different perspectives, woven together with open-minded listening and friendship:

"If you look at how this company was started in the first place, it was a set of very great relationships that was built right. Everyone brings their different views, and one of the things I really appreciate is that everyone is willing to listen, is open, and curious."

Livio himself is described as fun to work with, open to new experiences and collaboration—intrigued by diversity, uniqueness, and new discoveries. He says,

"I'm fascinated by things I don't understand. I value them, maybe more than what I do understand."

He and Fio are both intrigued by what doesn't make sense (why did the blood remain stable?) and by experimental "what-ifs," like how to influence the biomaterials they study. For example, if you change the water or other conditions for a mulberry tree, would that change the leaves, and in turn the worm, then the silk, making a better outcome for the materials and bio-devices? Good questioning is key to their journeys of discovery and development:

"The questions are the only thing. The answers are always going to be around, but if you don't ask the right questions you really have a problem."


Interweaving People and Ideas with Empathy

Questions lead Livio not only to experiments, but most notably to other people (e.g. Fio):

"He has an amazing network. We often joke about that, when we find he has some rare, random connection that turns out to be really useful. He's a people person and very skilled at developing relationships in a very natural manner—not consciously- or professionally-directed. It's much more personal than that. He has a natural way of connecting with people and finding out interesting things about them that perhaps nobody else would…. We're located in an incubator, and there are maybe 25 or 30 companies here. There are people the rest of us see every day and recognize, and the incubator managers try to foster a sense of community, but Livio's the one who talks with people over coffee or in the hall and then comes out of the blue and says, "You know, this person from XYZ down the hall has expertise in this area. Maybe we could talk to him."
– Dr. Kathryn Kosuda, Vaxess Co-Founder & VP-R&D

Livio continually considers not only individuals to tap but also organizations with which to collaborate—in academe, government, international bodies, foundations—integrating external people into Vaxess where appropriate.

Beyond the above, friends describe him as a creative problem solver, good communicator energized by people, trusting and trusted, very receptive to feedback, hardworking, energetic, spontaneous, visionary, flexible, and fluid. He sees the bigger picture and is not detail-oriented. "Work" and "life" are integrated, and he's very active (sailing, surfing, and more).


He's described as highly empathetic along all three dimensions—emotive, cognitive (understanding other points of view), and compassionate (helping others).

"I think that's actually at the core of who he is. You can tell from his life experiences he's always pursuing ways to help others and do something for the greater good."
– Dr. Kathryn Kosuda, Vaxess Co-Founder & VP-R&D

Empathy is a useful tool not only for seeking help and impact, but also for understanding at depth, where common patterns emerge and you can connect seemingly-disparate things in new ways—from different people, different experiences, different cultures, and more.

"He's a connector. He seeks people, he's open, he's opportunistic. Livio has dealt with multiple cultures, is empathetic, and his defining trait is to be able to identify connections—bringing together different pieces that can have very impactful outcomes. That's his distinguishing feature."
– Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto, Scientific Co-Founder & Director of Vaxess


Weave an Open Cocoon

For most people, exploring what's next and dreaming of new projects are very open experiences, prompting us to meet new people and explore new ideas. Livio was open to needs outside himself (in Cambodia and global healthcare); open to sadness and the need for new directions; open to questions and new ideas; and continually open to new people and partners. Fio was open to something that didn't make sense (stabilized blood), questions, and meeting a stranger with a passion to create something good for the world.

Implementing is usually the time to focus, and new creations require protection—a cocoon. But what if you're developing a dream? Openness to new ideas and people will be required throughout, and protective focus will have to be balanced and integrated with it.

"I think people who have done important things have been able to accompany execution with imagination. It's very difficult to find someone who can do both."
– Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto, Scientific Co-Founder & Director of Vaxess

Perhaps the most important openness is to build with other people—some more open, some more focused—appreciating what each one brings, weaving them together.

So the next time you walk away with a coke, you might remember the vaccine that could have gone with it, and ask yourself:

What do I know of the people and ideas all around me?

What doesn't make sense, and what might I do?

Will I walk a silk road, developing a dream, and who might walk with me?

It might require two Cokes.



1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;

Livio Valenti is Co-Founder and VP of Policy & Strategy for Vaxess Technologies. He is "from" Cambodia, China, Italy, and the USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see: LinkedIn and vaxess.com. If you speak Italian, you can catch him at TEDxVicenza or BeautifulMindsBologna.

To learn more from Livio's scientific co-founder, Dr. Fio Omenetto, visit TED.com for Silk, the Ancient Material of the Future. For a brief overview of silk vaccines, watch NOVA: Stabilizing Vaccines with Silk (PBS).

I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.

Photo/video cuts courtesy of Livio Valenti, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.

For more Fusion articles, click here.