In the heart of the heartland, Harrisvaccines is making breakthroughs that have the potential to revolutionize the care of livestock around the world. That’s because Harrisvaccines has introduced a new age approach to the development of vaccines that has turned traditional immunology methods on an ear.

The company was founded by Dr. Hank Harris and Dr. Matt Erdman in 2005, and is located in the Iowa State University Research Park. In the early years, work focused on providing solutions for the swine industry as Dr. Harris’ work at Iowa State had been centered on treating infectious diseases in the porcine population. But in recent years, the scope of products offered by Harrisvaccines has grown to offer herd-specific solutions that are safer and delivered quickly.

Vision Leads to Breakthrough

The initial work done by Drs. Harris and Erdman led to discoveries in regards to genetic code that proved valuable in making effective vaccines. The two shopped the patentable intellectual property around to animal vaccine companies with little success. It wasn’t until they connected with a human vaccine producer in North Carolina, Alphavax, that they were able to get the technology licensed.

“At the time, Alphavax didn’t have an animal vaccine division,” says Joel Harris, Head of Sales and Marketing. “They didn’t really have an interest in starting an animal division, but the partnership did allow us to exclusively license the technology.”

The technology license was the beginning of a long process in getting the technology to market. As vaccines are highly regulated, it took more than six years for the technology to gain USDA approval. Joel says that approval cleared the way for “overnight” success.

“Everything we had done in the decade prior to approval [it came in September 2012] set us up for instant success once we got it,” he says. “We are built to rapidly respond to pandemics as they come into the herd. When the H1N1 virus presented itself we were able to develop a custom vaccine in weeks and were the first to get it to market. That proved that we were prepared to change the landscape in regards to livestock immunology.”

A Complex, And Effective, Solution

The advanced process, called SirraVax RNA Particle technology, is unique on the market and allows for the production of custom, herd-specific vaccines in a matter of weeks, while traditional methods can take months or even years.

The impressive turnaround time stems from the fact that the company uses only specific genes from an infected animal. These genes are inserted electronically into the patented platform to produce the vaccine. Because this is done electronically, there is no need to grow a live virus or work with a killed virus. This greatly increases the speed in getting the product to market – time is money for producers when it comes to protecting the herd – and greatly boosts the effectiveness.

“There are so many benefits to this technology,” Joel says. “It eliminates the problems of shortages because we can produce as much as needed in real-time, or guessing what virus will come next. We can react to an actual virus and create a custom vaccine to specifically address it.”

Producers, and those in the know in the agricultural and biomedical fields, have taken notice. The company has earned accolades from the likes of Inc. magazine, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Small Business Administration and others in recent years.

“We established the business knowing that fewer than 5% of biotech start-ups make it,” Joel says. “But we always believed that this was the future of vaccines. The market has proven that to be the case as we turned profitable last year and our sales have tripled in the last 18 months.”

Finding Value in the Heart of the Heartland

Joel says it is no surprise the company has found success from its location in the Research Park. Among the benefits of being located in the biotech rich environment is easy access to the animal science experts at Iowa State University, along with close proximity to producers and to the regulatory agencies located in Ames, including the USDA.

Access to talent is also a boon for Harrisvaccines, which employs around 40 full-time equivalents.

“The talent coming out of Iowa State has always been among the best in the country,” Joel says. “But because there are so many biotech companies in the Park and located in and around Ames, it has encouraged more of them to stay in this area, and has attracted professionals with expertise in these fields to come here. It is invaluable and offers us a great pool of talent to recruit.”

Harrisvaccines leases its space in the Research Park. Joel says the Research Park leadership has worked hard to ensure there were facilities available as the company grew. With a great deal of market success in the last couple years, Joel says sights are set on further expansion in the Research Park.   

Among the priorities in expansion is increased space for research and development.
“We are about one thing,” Joel says. “We want to continue to make new discoveries in order to best serve producers and veterinarians as they protect the health of our nation’s livestock, which in turn can also protect humans from these zoonotic diseases. ”