Alumnus’ VCU journey leads to new corporation — and a chance to fix America’s drug shortage problem
Right: Phlow co-founder Eric Edwards, an alumnus of VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences, School of Pharmacy and School of Medicine, speaks at a School of Pharmacy Graduate Advisory Board meeting in 2019. (Danny Tiet, School of Pharmacy)
Earlier this year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced a four-year contract worth $354 million for Richmond-based Phlow Corp. to manufacture medication components and drugs in the United States that could treat COVID-19 and other diseases.
If extended to the maximum 10 years, the contract could be worth $812 million. Phlow is a new company, co-founded and formally launched this year by Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering professor and alumnus B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., and three-time VCU alumnus Eric S. Edwards. Edwards earned a B.S. in biology and in chemistry from the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2002, his Ph.D. from the School of Pharmacy in 2011 and his M.D. from the School of Medicine in 2013.
In an interview with the School of Pharmacy, Edwards, a co-founder of Richmond pharmaceutical company Kaleo and now CEO of Phlow, talked about the project, the role VCU plays in it and how his VCU education and connections helped him get to where he is.
Can you talk a little bit about the role that VCU played in the project planning and in the success you've had getting Phlow going?
Frank Gupton and I have been longtime friends. The pharmaceutical world is very small in Richmond — he's been a mentor and a colleague, we’ve shared different panels together, we've just always had mutual admiration.
In the spring of 2019, he and I were coming out of a meeting, and he pulled me aside in the parking lot. He knew I was consulting and trying to take a break — after my brother and I left Kaleo, I had promised my wife I wouldn't start another company for at least 12 months. That did not last long.
Basically Frank told me, “You have the gift of entrepreneurship. And I have an amazing platform and team that is working on trying to apply advanced-flow chemistry and continuous technology to medicines.”
I understood the benefits associated with the technology platform. I was passionate about fixing the broken pharmaceutical accessibility, distribution and supply system in America. I mean, we're in the United States of America, and yet I was on an ambulance last night, pulling my civic duty — I've been volunteering with a rescue squad for 20 years — and the first thing I did is go up to the drug box and try to figure out what's missing because of the numerous shortages.
How is it that in the U.S. we have so many critical medicines in shortage, with over 200 drugs on the Food and Drug Administration drug-shortage list? I started talking to Frank [Gupton] about how this platform could be applied to try to make some of these medicines in shortage.
[Edwards began working with Gupton after the 2017 launch of the VCU College of Engineering-based Medicines for All Institute. Gupton leads the program, founded to make drugs in smaller batches at a lower cost. Edwards and Gupton later decided to work together to make medicines other pharmaceutical companies have not. Initially, Edwards and Gupton focused on manufacturing drugs needed by pediatric patients.]
Can you talk a little bit about the role VCU is expected to play in this federal contract with Phlow?
The contracts that Phlow Corp. filed for and won include short-term and longer-term components. The short-term component is for Phlow immediately to work on manufacturing critical, essential medicines in need, leveraging our partners at AMPAC Fine Chemicals and Civica Rx. AMPAC is doing traditional batch manufacturing of critical generics that are in short supply; Civica is leveraging their manufacturing network to make the finished product.
Simultaneously, we were given a pool of funding for [research and development] and process development for essential medicines using continuous manufacturing technology. We have selected VCU as an R&D partner — specifically Medicines for All.
Phlow has subcontracted with VCU's College of Engineering and Medicines for All to begin expanding their people, processes, equipment and laboratory space to become Phlow’s and Medicines for All’s R&D headquarters for this government initiative. Phlow obviously will also leverage other R&D work when Medicines for All doesn't have enough capacity. But VCU and Medicines for All is our primary advanced R&D subcontracting team partner. They will conduct R&D right there in downtown Richmond in Bio+Tech 8.
Is workforce development and student training an important aspect?
We are leaving it up to VCU and Frank and the team to decide where there is the most alignment, especially with graduate students. Obviously, with the College of Engineering and the VCU Pharmaceutical Engineering program, there is complete alignment. The pharmaceutical engineering program is a joint program between the College of Engineering and the School of Pharmacy.
Also, there's a lot of talent in the pharmacy school’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry and the analytical team that could help support this work. For example, Dr. Matt Halquist runs the core analytical lab at the School of Pharmacy; that certainly provides another opportunity.
We are leaving it up to VCU to help identify the bench of student and graduate student talent. We hope it will eventually lead to a development pipeline of technical talent who ultimately become employees of Medicines for All or Phlow.
With a bachelor’s, a Ph.D. and an M.D., you are a triple graduate of VCU. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned in your studies that you still use today?
I was a biology major and almost a chemistry minor — I took a ton of chemistry courses, and I think I was one course away from getting my minor. Without the foundational knowledge from some of my professors, I don't think I would have a clue on how to comprehend the complex chemistry that is being put in front of me now on a weekly basis. A firm foundation in biology and chemistry and biochemistry was extremely helpful in trying to dig into these complex processes and this technology platform.
Moreover, one of the things that I really appreciated from VCU is that, as an undergraduate, I was exposed to a lot of fantastic professors and a lot of opportunities to stretch myself.
When you're becoming a CEO of a company that has a pretty bold and grand vision and mission, you're being stretched on a daily basis. At VCU as a part of the Honors College, I did the guaranteed admissions program to the School of Medicine. That experience constantly required me to stretch and push myself really hard to be the best that I could be, and to work toward excellence, because if you weren't you couldn't make it through the program.
VCU had so much to offer as it related to the coursework that was available to me. The leadership was very gracious to allow me to pursue those courses that complemented the activities that I was embarking on as an entrepreneur. It really was a fantastic, true translational experience for me.
When I was at Kaleo, I was taking a course on advanced pharmacokinetics when we were doing our first [pharmacokinetics] trial. When we started heading down the commercialization pathway, I was able to take courses such as pharmaceutical pricing and reimbursement and pharmacoeconomics. All of that has been very helpful in framing a foundation of knowledge that has allowed me to develop the expertise necessary to help Phlow achieve our mission and vision.
Anything else you would want to mention about the connection between your work now and in the past, and VCU, your alma mater?
I look forward to helping support the university as it continues to lead on a national stage. I continue to be heavily engaged in helping students reach their full potential. I'm currently chair of the Graduate Advisory Board for the School of Pharmacy.
This particular industry that we're talking about, these essential medicines that have been neglected for years by others, they are all the medicines that are necessary to sustain life and conquer disease. It's going to take bold vision, and it's going to take leadership.
These student leaders, I see them, I speak with them and I mentor them on a regular basis. And I'm thrilled to be a part of a partnership with VCU to make that a reality.
The students at our university, now more than ever, hold the key to moving this industry into the future.