Story by Suzi Morales
Photo Courtesy of James Wassil
James Wassil ’99 MS‚ ’05 MBA combines entrepreneurship‚ scientific knowledge to advance public health.
Long before vaccines were headline news, James Wassil ’99 MS, ’05 MBA was on the leading edge of vaccine development and policy. Throughout his career‚ Wassil‚ who earned an MBA as well as a Master’s of Science in bio-organic chemistry from Lehigh‚ has used a unique combination of scientific curiosity and business know-how to help develop vaccines and get them to the public.
Since 2019‚ Wassil has been the COO at Vaxcyte‚ a vaccine development startup whose mission is to prevent or treat infections caused by bacterial diseases. Prior to making the leap to a startup‚ Wassil worked in big pharma for decades‚ but the seeds of entrepreneurship were planted years before during his time at the College of Business.
Building a New Business Model
In the mid-1990s‚ Wassil was working at Merck and also pursuing a master’s degree in bio-organic chemistry at Lehigh. At Merck‚ he was working in research and development on a rotavirus and hepatitis A vaccine. Merck had decided to provide vaccines throughout the world and initially thought it would spearhead technology transfers‚ sharing knowledge about vaccine manufacturing with partners all over the world.
Wassil’s group soon realized that vaccine quality could be improved and distribution made more efficient if vaccines were manufactured at just one location and distributed to public health officials around the world. “I had a quick shift from my original intent‚ which was to teach people how to make vaccines‚ and suddenly it was selling vaccines in different countries‚” Wassil recalls.
As his team was working on the new commercial model for the vaccine distribution‚ Wassil realized he would need to master not only the R&D concepts‚ but also the business lingo. This led him to pursue his MBA at Lehigh.
“I would be sitting in these meetings and people used terms that I’d never even heard of‚ in ways that I didn’t quite understand‚” he remembers. “To bolster my scientific background with a basic foundation in finance‚ accounting and even marketing‚ was really interesting. The major objective was to gain that fundamental understanding.”
An Entrepreneur in Big Pharma
While he worked for major pharmaceutical companies for more than twenty years‚ Wassil says the vaccine business has traditionally been more entrepreneurial than other sectors of the industry. This is because of the long turnaround required for development of most vaccines‚ which makes investment in these products less attractive than for medicines that are developed more quickly. At Merck‚ and later Novartis‚ where he began working in 2008‚ Wassil used what he learned in both the chemistry and MBA programs at Lehigh to develop vaccines and build the business sectors.
In 2019‚ Wassil got the opportunity to take his entrepreneurial spirit in a new direction‚ becoming the COO of Vaxcyte. After years of working at big pharma‚ he says he finds it sometimes challenging to work at a small company with limited resources‚ but it also has given him greater autonomy. “People don’t normally get to make that kind of transition‚” he remarks.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Wassil’s current position is the diversity of the work. “I’m the clinician. I’m the regulatory person‚ but I’m also the business person in this role‚” he says. For example‚ he took the interview for this article at 7:00 a.m. while driving to Vaxcyte’s office in San Carlos‚ California. Following the interview‚ he was going to discuss product safety data with the company’s clinical lead and then have a meeting with investors.
Theoretical but Practical
While earning both his bio-organic chemistry and MBA degrees from Lehigh‚ Wassil says he appreciates the high caliber and pragmatic teaching he received‚ emphasizing not only the concepts but also their rationales.
Wassil’s unique combination of scientific and business expertise also is apparent in his involvement in the Lehigh alumni community. Currently‚ he is on the Dean’s Advisory Council at the College of Health. With his connections in the industry and lean toward entrepreneurship‚ he is helping the College through its “early formative stage.” He also has been in discussions with Lehigh’s Nasdaq entrepreneurial program to host students at Vaxcyte.
With the increased visibility of vaccines in recent years‚ Wassil believes there is a window of opportunity for increased investing. He is now taking on the next pandemic‚ bacterial antimicrobial resistance. But no matter what the public health climate is‚ or whether he’s working for a startup or a multinational pharmaceutical company‚ Wassil says one principal has guided him: “How can I do the most good?”