Don't worry if you never heard of Dr. J. Joseph Kim. Most investors haven't-at least not yet.
He's the CEO of an early-stage biotech firm that has developed a truly novel product for one of the nation's major medical markets -- vaccines.
It's a $30 billion a year business in just the U.S. alone.
The problem is that the vaccine technology we use today to prevent diseases like the flu, chicken pox and polio is hopelessly outdated because it still relies on the delivery of a portion of the actual virus to develop immunity.
Not only that, but some of these agents are still grown in chicken eggs like they were back in the 1930s.
And while they are still relatively safe, the vaccines themselves or their additives can still make people sick.
But what if you could develop a whole new class of vaccines that were actually safe using a synthetic DNA?
Better yet, what if you could vaccinate yourself against HIV, cervical cancer, leukemia, and hepatitis?
The payoff would be tremendous.
Now you know why I was so anxious to meet with Kim, the founder and CEO of Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. (NYSE:INO) last week.
The Promise of Synthetic Vaccines
As luck would have it, my timing couldn't have been better.
On the day we met over dinner, Inovio's stock jumped some 17% on the announcement that it had received major backing from an anti-malaria foundation formed by none other than Bill and Melinda Gates.
And it wasn't the first time a group tied to one of the world's richest men -- and himself an expert in "disruptive" technology -- has backed Kim's approach.
In fact, the Gates-led PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative has invested millions in Kim's company.
But that wasn't the only event related to our meeting at a posh San Francisco restaurant that sits hard by the historic Bay Bridge.
Just that very day headline after headline focused on the growing flu epidemic that has sickened thousands around the U.S.
Since Inovio is working on a "universal" flu vaccine made from synthetic DNA, Kim was the perfect person to talk with about this emerging new field.
As Dr. Kim told me over a dinner of steak and crab cakes, "Vaccines as a whole throughout our recent history have saved more lives than any other human invention."
He's right. The great pandemics of yesteryear wiped out millions of people before vaccines arrived.
"But most of the vaccines that our kids take today were developed 40, 50, 60 years ago," Kim explained.
And as this award-winning scientist sees it, our standard vaccine technology remains about as exciting as watching an old black-and-white TV. It's nowhere near as sophisticated as it could be.
The Inovio Advantage
That's where Inovio comes in. The firm has two big advantages in the market.
The first is their synthetic vaccines. To date, none has received FDA approval for sale. But they have shown great results so far in several tests.
"So far we've vaccinated over 500 people for different trials over almost 1,500 times and there has been no signaling of safety concerns from any of these procedures," Kim explained. "It's been an extremely safe procedure and technology."
"And I'll tell you why," Kim said, "these are snippets of synthetic DNA that we can engineer. It's pure DNA formulated in pure water. So we use no chemicals, no additives, and no preservatives."
That brings up Kim's second competitive advantage -- a unique and patented delivery system. It's called electroporation.
In laymen's terms electroporation works like this: the patient receives the synthetic vaccine via an injection. But here's the "secret sauce" -- as the shot is given, the patient also receives a short electric pulse.
This burst of electricity causes cell membranes to open briefly to accept the DNA rather than try to fight it as a foreign substance. In turn, those cells produce antigens that tell the immune system to fight the targeted disease.
In fact, using these competitive advantages, Kim has set his sights far beyond the market for flu shots. Along with fighting the spread of malaria, Inovio's unique approach is being tested on HIV, cervical cancer, leukemia, and hepatitis.
Needless to say, that's a lot of science on the drawing board for a company whose stock trades at just about $0.65 a share.
Of course, it goes without saying that investing in any early-stage biotech firm is risky. These stocks rise and fall based on the results of clinical trials, decisions by the FDA and the need to raise more funds to continue research.
So, there's no guarantee Kim's company will continue its recent 30% run.
But I do predict the future belongs to synthetic vaccines being tested by companies like Inovio.
And I know it belongs to visionary leaders like J. Joseph Kim, who are moving our world at warp speed, finding new ways to help us live longer and healthier lives.
When you do that, it's only natural that profits arrive right along with it.